PITY America's court junkies: About the best they can hope for in juridical diversion is the mostly grim O.J. trial. Britain, on the other hand, has the frequently farcical " McLibel" case -- the lawsuit filed by McDonald's against two vegetarian environmentalists on the unemployment dole who distributed a leaflet some years back implicating the American burger chain in a variety of greed-driven crimes against earth, humankind and beast. While not televised, the libel proceedings offer, to those spectators willing to endure long bouts of tedious testimony, moments of high absurdity as world views collide: It's the (sometimes) bewigged lawyers and suited executives of McDonald's versus the defendants in jeans and sandals, who are representing themselves. The defendants -- Dave Morris, 41, a former postal worker, and Helen Steel, 29, a gardener -- say they have succeeded in turning the tables on McDonald's in court by putting its practices on trial. Many evidently agree: McDonald's stockholders have complained that the trial -- the longest libel trial in British history at 13 months and counting -- is a costly public-relations disaster, and the company has reportedly pursued a settlement. Here are excerpts.
This is from the original leaflet at issue in the case, distributed in the mid-1980's by the defendants' obscure environmental group, called London Greenpeace:
McDollars, McGreedy, McCancer, McMurder, McDisease, McProfits, McDeadly, McHunger, McRipoff, McTorture, McWasteful, McGarbage.
This leaflet is asking you to think for a moment about what lies behind McDonald's clean, bright image. It's got a lot to hide. . . .
. . . including, according to the leaflet, McDonald's responsibility for the destruction of rain forests . . . McDonald's and Burger King are two of the many U.S. corporations using lethal poisons to destroy vast areas of Central American rain forest to create grazing pastures for cattle to be sent back to the States as burgers and pet food . . .
. . . malnutrition . . .
What they don't make clear is that a diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt . . . and low in fiber, vitamins and minerals -- which describes an average McDonald's meal -- is linked with cancers of the breast and bowel, and heart disease. . . .
. . . not to mention worker exploitation, animal cruelty -- and the brainwashing of children:
. . . Thousands of young children now think of burgers and chips every time they see a clown with orange hair.
In November 1990, McDonald's said enough is enough and filed suit. After years of preliminary hearings, the case was ready for trial in June 1994. The company explained its position in a flyer, "Why McDonald's Is Going to Court," distributed in Britain beforehand:
Under British libel law, the burden is on defendants to prove that what was printed was true (while plaintiffs in the United States need to prove damaging assertions false). Saddled with this seeming disadvantage, the hard-up defendants (backed by an international McLibel Support Campaign) nevertheless have been able to ventilate their charges, examining scores of witnesses. On July 19, 1994, there was this exchange between Miss Steel and Paul Preston, President of McDonald's in Britain:
Miss Steel: This may sound like a silly question, but what is the purpose of Ronald McDonald?
Mr. Preston: He is a spokesman to children.
Q. For what reason?
A. An advertising symbol . . . He is a character who has become known and loved with children on many fronts in an educational sense, synonymous with McDonald's, the food, the fun involved. . . .
Q. Is that part of what is known as "the McDonald's experience"? . . .
A. I think for young children [in the] 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-year-old age group, I would say it is very much a part of the experience. All you have to do is watch one of his magic shows. . . . It becomes blatantly clear what power he has in terms of an educational, influencing factor on young people.
Q. What about an influencing factor in terms of what those children might eat?
A. Well, certainly he is a factor. If he promotes McDonald's, he is obviously there to help promote the business.
Q. Right. So . . . you are using Ronald McDonald to sell your products directly to children?
A. Ronald McDonald does not sell food. Ronald McDonald is seen in restaurants. He does not sell large boxes of fries or Big Macs. He never has to children. He has never been seen in a McDonald's advertisement selling big sandwiches, big fries, drinks to children ever once. . . .
Q. You mentioned a large Coke or a large fries. What about medium Coke or medium fries?
A. Never. He has never been used with anything other than hamburger, cheeseburger, soft drink, Happy Meal, to my knowledge, anywhere . . .
Q. So you are using him to sell food?
A. He is associated with food but . . . has never said: "Kids, come in, buy this" -- never.
Q. But that is the purpose.
A. The purpose is to promote McDonald's.
Q. Yes, but McDonald's sells food? . . .
And last Dec. 8, there was this exchange between the defendants and Edward Oakley, senior vice president of McDonald's in Britain, over a McDonald's pamphlet on nutrition:
Miss Steel: Going over to the third page: "To help all our customers eat healthily, we are constantly making our menu even more nutritious." Is the implication of that that your menu was nutritious in the first place?
Mr. Oakley: It certainly contains all the nutrients you need in a daily diet.
Q. All of them?
A. Well, I am not aware of any that it does not contain.
Q. In the amounts that you need?
A. Not in the amounts that you need. We are not claiming that. You have to balance the diet to get the correct amount . . .
Q. What do you mean by nutritious?
A. Foods that contain nutrients.
Q. That is what it means?
A. Yes. . . .
Mr. Morris: Over the page it says : "Every time you eat at McDonald's you will be eating good nutritious food." If I go into McDonald's and buy a milk shake and take it away, that is eating good nutritious food?
A. Yes, there are a lot of nutrients in a milk shake.
Q. If I just go in and have some chips [french fries], that is good nutritious food?
A. Potatoes are a good source of nutrients, yes. . . .
Miss Steel: Is there any food you know of that is not nutritious?
A. I do not know if you would call it food or not, but you could put up an argument for black coffee or black tea or mineral water.
A. On their own.
Q. What about Coca-Cola?
A. Coca-Cola has a good source of energy, no question of that.
Q. So you think it is nutritious then?
A. Yes, it can be.
The trial, now in recess, resumes next month and is expected to drag into 1996 before a ruling by the long-suffering presiding Justice, Rodger Bell. Not everyone is amused, least of all taxpayers upset over the cost. "Anyone who doubts the need for reform of the law of libel should pay a visit to the Royal Courts of Justice in London's Strand," The Economist wrote of the trial.