|An expert witness on health called by McDonald's was read the statement "a diet high in fat, sugar, animal produce and salt and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals, is linked with cancer of the breast and bowel and heart diseases". Agreeing that it was "a very reasonable thing to say" to the public, he was told it was an extract from the allegedly libellous leaflet. Ms Steel and Mr Morris's supporters use such testimony to broadcast news of the case around the world - one reason that McDonald's lawyers angrily stopped supplying the defendants with a free copy of the trial transcripts.|
There is a birthday party going on outside in the strand, but inside Court 35 at the Royal Courts of Justice nobody seems in the mood to celebrate. Welcome to McLibel, Britain's longest running civil trial.
Last Friday the case in which the McDonald's Corporation is suing Helen Steel and David Morris, two environmental campaigners, for libel, marked its second anniversary. The defendants supporters rallied outside, complete with placards and "birthday cake" but inside a sense of battle fatigue was evident. Some 270 days have now been spent in a courtroom now lined with hundreds of cases of trial documents and the case - which was originally expected to last three weeks - is now likely to run until Christmas.
According to the columnist Auberon Waugh it is "the best entertainment in London", for the participants, however, it is a more serious matter.
McDonald's the fast-food firm whose familiar logo of twin golden arches is one of the world's most familiar symbols of corporate capitalism, chalked up =A329.9 billion worth of sales last year at its 16,000 odd restaurants. But in court 35 one newspaper suggested last week it has a strong claim to have mounted the most expensive and disastrous public relations campaign ever launched by a multinational company. McDonald's is suing Ms Steel and Mr Morris over a leaflet allegedly produced in the mid-1980s by London Greenpeace, a small group of libertarian inspired environmental protesters (not associated with the larger Greenpeace UK) which campaigned on issues ranging from animal right to poll tax. The leaflet What's Wrong With McDonald's Everything They Don't Want You To Know, claimed that the company sold food that could be linked to cancer or heart disease, was responsible for litter and environmental destruction, and exploited children through its advertising and its own workers through low pay.
McDonald's which understandably reject all those claims investigated its critics. In September 1990 it served libel writs against five campaigners. Three agreed to apologise in court. Ms Steel and Mr Morris refused, arguing they believe the claims were true. Since then they have defended themselves in court, as legal aid is not available in libel cases. The case is being heard by Mr Justice Bell without a jury.
It should be no contest Ms Steel, 30, a former gardener, works part-time in a London pub. Mr Morris, 42, is a former postman who now devotes himself to bringing up his server-year-old son. Between them they have an income of =A37,000 a year. They have met their costs through fund-raising among supporters (Linda McCartney gave =A31,000). By contrast McDonald's leading barrister is the elegant Richard Rampton, QC, a leading libel lawyer, estimated to command some =A32,000 = a day. McDonald's declines to comment on its costs so far, but it is thought to have spent hundreds of thousands-possibly millions.
Though they share the same bench in the high-ceilinged, wood-panelled Gothic courtroom, there the similarities end. Mr Rampton is urbane and skilled, bewigged and gowned. Mr Morris and Ms Steel stand casually dressed, hands sometimes in pockets. Mr Rampton employs courtly courtesy, but can be forensically precise, by comparison Mr Morris and Ms Steel punctuate their remarks with "OK" "Yeah" and "Right" and labour over questions - to Mr Rampton's evident frustration. Yet, paradoxically, Ms Steel and Mr Morris - now dubbed the "McLibel Two" by a press delighting in David and Goliath comparisons - believe they have turned their legal inexperience and lack of wealth to their advantage. Save for bankruptcy they say they cannot lose. They also argue that a greater cost inflicted on the company is the damage they believe the case has caused to its reputation. They believe the trial has highlighted what they say are the company's failings.
McDonald's has admitted hiring private detectives to infiltrate the London Greenpeace group. One agent told the court last Friday she "didn't like the deception and interfering with other people's lives". Other detectives have admitted entering the group's offices, taking documents and - in order to pass themselves off as sympathisers - helping to distribute the allegedly libellous leaflet.
A McDonald's purchasing executive questioned on the company's policy on waste said dumping could be beneficial, "otherwise you will end up with lots of empty gravel pits all over the country" . A McDonald's employee told of sewage rising through the drains at one Essex restaurant (claims the company denies).
An expert witness on health called by McDonald's was read the statement "a diet high in fat, sugar, animal produce and salt and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals, is linked with cancer of the breast and bowel and heart diseases". Agreeing that it was "a very reasonable thing to say" to the public, he was told it was an extract from the allegedly libellous leaflet. Ms Steel and Mr Morris's supporters use such testimony to broadcast news of the case around the world - one reason that McDonald's lawyers angrily stopped supplying the defendants with a free copy of the trial transcripts.
The latest tactic is "McSpotlight" on the Internet on which Ms Steel and Mr Morris's supporters place regular bulletins on the trial. The computer notice-board is said to have been accessed a million times.
Whereas the London Greenpeace group seems to have been pretty ineffectual - "sometimes it was difficult to determine whether anything had been decided at all". one infiltrating private detective's agent recalled of its meeting - the trial has given its protests a publicity it cannot have imagined in the days when a handful of protesters met in a damp room in North London.
McDonald's remains convinced that going to court was the right thing. "If McDonald's does not take action to correct these lies they will be assumed to be true", a company briefing document says, "This was and still is a case of protecting our reputation." says Mike Love, McDonald's UK head of communications. "serious allegations were made against the company." He rejects Mr Morris and Ms Steel's claim that McDonald's is using a costly legal action to stifle legitimate criticism. The case the company briefing says "is about the right to stop people telling lies."
Was it worth it? "The intention of bringing the action was to obtain a judgement and we are looking forward to it." Mr Love says, "The length of the trial should not be an issue." Mr Morris and Ms Steel are similarly defiant. "Has it been worth it? Yes." Ms Steel replies. "It is important not to give in to attempts by a big multinational company to silence their critics."
"We are conducting a public investigation into the inner workings of a corporation which symbolises a whole economic system," Mr Morris says.
Back at Court 35 the case continues. Everyone seems to be looking forward to a summer break, but it could be January before Mr Justice Bell gives his verdict. On Friday he betrays perhaps a hint of weariness.
"I am not going to say anything which encourages anyone to introduce any new evidence" Mr Justice Bell says.
"That" Mr Morris says "will be a tragedy."
The Court rises and the participants make their way out of Court 35. Behind
the High Court in Carey Street someone has dropped a piece of
litter. It is a hamburger carton and bears the familiar sign of two golden