When people stop believing in religion, G K Chesterton noticed, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything. Casting around to fill the gap left by the decline of Christianity, we have discovered strange creeds that have been fanatically followed. Animal rights, the environment, hatred of smoking, political correctness and vegetarianism have all attracted huge congregations. But few would have suspected that the ritual insertion of a bit of minced meat and a few onions into a bun would create an object of religious devotion.
The awe with which the McDonald company regards its humble product provides the great comic moments of this long and entertaining story of religious conflict hopelessly trapped in an outdated system of libel law. Ray Kroc, the messiah of McDonald's and founder of the company, said that "the French fry would become almost sacrosanct", and its preparation was a ''ritual to be followed religiously''. Others described the Big Mac as the ''communion wafer" of the consumer society; Kroc himself spoke of "faith in McDonald's as if it were a religion", adding: ''I've often said that I believe in God, family and McDonald` s . . and in the of fice, that order is reversed.''
The ritual cooking of the Holy Bun was minutely regulated. The hamburger dough was to weigh 1.60z, and measure 3.785in in diameter and contain no more than 17-20.5% fat. Acolytes, in the shape of grill men, had to move from left to right, put out six rows of burgers, flip the third row first, then the fourth, fifth and sixth before the first and second. As a result of this service, the faith spread rapidly throughout the world. The familiar yellow and red arches became, as John Vidal writes, a symbol as universal as the True Cross; and Ron the Baptist, otherwise known as Ronald McDonald the Clown, spread the word to the little children in the nurseries and playgroups who were suffered to come unto McDonald's. The Big Mac was easily translated into many languages, although unfortunately it was discovered that Gros Mec in French slang meant big pimp, and the name was abandoned. The profits of the company rose, eventually, to something in the order of $1 billion a year.
With this background, it is easy to see why McDonald's regarded criticism as something akin to blasphemy. This sacrilegious act was performed by the adherents of a rival faith known as Greenpeace. In September 1990. McDonald's issued a writ against the members of Greenpeace who handed out a fact sheet critical of the company in England. A religious war started, which lasted from June 20, 1994 to December 13, 1996. It was the longest trial in British history, and from it the patient and courteous Mr Justice Bell - who is still considering his verdict - emerged saying: "I don't mean to be difficult when I say I don't know when I will deliver my judgment, because I don't know.,' Even now, he alone can tell us whether the Bun is going to be found to have all the elements of divinity its devotees claim for it.
The two defendants in the libel action, undertaking the heroic task of arguing it in per son, are David Morris, an early Greenpeace member, and Helen Steel. They met at a demonstration called ''Stop the City", meaning the business centre of London, which, according to their faith, is more dangerously evil than either Sodom or Gomorrah. Unemployed (although Steel worked two nights a week in a West End bar), they fought the case for 313 days in court against Richard Rampton QC, a most experienced libel lawyer. They prepared their questions munching breakfast while strap-hanging on the Underground. They cross-examined countless expert witnesses, took one issue to the European Court and lost an application for trial by jury, a decision which caused no less a legal expert than Marcel Berlins to say he couldn't ''think of a case in which the legal cards have been so spectacularly stacked against one party".
The articles of faith shared by Morris an Steel are clear. International corporations financial interests which exploit and damage the earth - are anathema. Morris and Steel are, perhaps, anarchists in the least dangerous ''mutual aid'', Prince Kropotkin sense of the word. It's the religion that led Ken Saro-Wiwa to his death in Nigeria, Swampy to burrow like a mole, and which reduced the defendants to almost terminal exhaustion in court 35 in the Royal Courts of Justice. It is what induce Moms and Steel to hand out their fact sheet like a religious tract, to a few passers-by in Trafalgar Square in January 1985. Greenpeace could afford to print only a few hundred copies at that time. All the same. the fact sheet announced a grand "Day of Action against McDonald's'', and carried such headlines as McTorture, McGreedy, McDollars and McProfits. It was this scrap of paper that McDonald`s wished to have held to be an anathema by the order of Mr Justice Bell. After spending years and millions of pounds on the trial. the circulation of the pamphlet by the McLibel Support Campaign was increased to more than half a million. However, the company's business in England has flourished and increased.
The issues appear relatively simple. The expert witnesses agreed that a diet consisting solely of fast food. with high fat and sugar content, is likely to cause disease: but did the leaflet go too far in talking about ''McCancer''? On the other hand, have the libel laws merely become a blanket by which rich companies can stifle opposition? Whatever Bell's final decision, the McLibel case shows our civil law working at its expensive worst - a ponderous and leisurely sledgehammer that has been trundled out to crack a nut.
In America, public criticism of a public institution is part of the right of free speech and is actionable only on the basis that the defendant knows his statements were untrue. It is clearly unfair that neither side in a libel action can get legal aid. Perhaps companies which complain of libel should have to show actual loss. When, as in the McDonald's affair, th case is basically a conflict of beliefs, it could be argued that, as in most religious wars, the hostilities were unnecessary. The last word should be left to the definition by Ambrose Bierce in his Devil's Dictionary—''Litigation. n. A machine which you go into as a pig and come out as a sausage.''