Despite the fact that Auberon Waugh descnbed it as 'the best free entertainment in town' the evidence heard at the McLibel trial, the longest trial case in British legal history, was considered too complicated for the jury system leaving Mr Justice Bell to hear the case alone. Taking this into consideration, it is to the credit of makers of 'McLibel!' that they have managed not only to explain the legal and technical arguments, but to make more than three hours of courtroom conflict mto thoroughly gripping television.
For those of you who have been living on another planet for the past three years the McLibel trial began after members of London Greenpeace (not to be confused the Greenpeace International) distributed a leaflet entitled 'What's Wrong With McDonald's', which alleged that the company sold food linked with heart disease and cancer, caused food poisoning, exploited staff, tortured animals and destroyed rainforests.
Five writs were issued by McDonald's in September 1990 and three of those named promptly apologised and withdrew all the allegations. But Helen Steel (played by Julia Sawalha) and Dave Morris (Peter-Hugo Daly) refused and discovering that legal aid is not available for libel actions, decided to represent themselves.
In reality the trial lasted a mammoth 313 days but producer DennisWoolf, one of the team behind the award-winning 'Scott of the Arms Antics', has selected the key arguments and counter arguements, with Sheena McDonald on hand to provide background and links.
What is clear from the programme is that there are no easy answers. Take the question of whether McDonald's foods can cause cancer. Well, the company accepts that foods high in saturated fats and salt have been linked to cancer, and that some of its products do fall into this category. But then so do many other, non-McDonald's products. And as part of a balanced diet, McDonald's could not be considered harmful. On the other hand, by targeting regular users (as the company admits it does) surely it is encouraging people to eat a less balanced diet and therefore increase their risk of certain cancers) .
If neither side is portrayed as being utterly convincing or wholly sympathetic, then this is to the credit of the programme makers. After all, it is this very fact that has led to the trial continuing for so long.
'McLibel!' starts tonight, 7.15pm, C4 Concludes tomorrow, 7.30pm.