ON TUESDAY, THE longest
case in legal history returns to
the High Court. McLibel, the
trial which made Jarndyce v
Jarndyce feel like a quickie
divorce, whose fame has spread
worldwide via the Internet so
that lesser breeds without the
law might gaze on British justice
with wonder and despair, will
begin its 315th day.
The first session of what promises to be an appeal that will last for months will be notable for a startling absence. McDonald's is not appealing, in all senses of the word. Helen Steel and Dave Morris, two skint, green activists, will be in the witness-box yet again to contest the decision of the original judge that they must pay McDonald's, the junk-food conglomerate with a global turnover of £18 billion, damages of £60,000 for writing leaflets which criticised the corporation. But McDonald's will not counterattack.
Its spokesman, Mike Love, who turns out to have been Margaret Thatcher's election agent in the Eighties, said it was happy with the verdict.
His insouciance fits the conventional wisdom about McLibel. McDonald's is meant to have won a Pyrrhic victory. Its claim that it was libelled was upheld, assumed the media. The case was merely a 'PR disaster' that made the conglomerate look like 'bullies'.
Yet, although he backed the company on many points, some of the worst charges Steel and Morris made were upheld by the judge as correct in every detail. The company's £1.3bn advertising budget aimed to 'exploit' 'susceptible' children so they would 'pressurise their parents into going to McDonald's,' he ruled. (Steel and Morris had read him a charming McDonald's operations manual that instructed employees to remember: 'Children are often the key decision-makers concerning where a family goes to eat. Ronald loves McDonald's and McDonald's food. And so do children, because they love Ronald. You should do everything you can to appeal to children's love for Ronald and McDonald's.') Mr Justice Bell added that the advertising men pretended McDonald's burgers were nutritious when the evidence showed that those who gobble fast food 'several times a week will take the very real risk of heart disease'. He had no doubt that the company paid its workers low wages and was 'culpably responsible for cruel practices in the rearing and slaughter of some animals'.
Steel and Morris's success was remarkable because the legal system put every obstacle in their way. The unemployed activists could not afford lawyers, but were denied legal aid. They weren't allowed to have a jury of citizens hear their defence and pass a verdict, even though you are libelled only if you have been exposed to ridicule and contempt in the eyes of ordinary people, not judges. While they were forced to justify every real and imagined inflection and nuance McDonald's millionaire lawyers could find in their leaflet, Bell said McDonald's was entitled to say in pamphlets plonked in its restaurants that the greens were peddling lies, while accepting, in several instances, that the 'lies' were true.
All these issues and many more will be raised at the appeal. For the moment, we can look at what McDonald's has, in effect, admitted. The judge decided it had brainwashed children into buying heart-tighteningly sickly food, and treated its workers badly and animals worse - and McDonald's does not contest his findings.
Well, I'm glad that's been cleared up.
Glad because, despite Bell's ruling, McDonald's is being treated as the most respectable of companies by the press and Government. British television has banned a documentary on the case which has already been shown around the world. McDonald's reputation for using the law to batter critics is Maxwellian and each time Steel and Morris are interviewed they are instructed not to say anything nasty. Companies as diverse as the tiny producers of vegan T-shirts in America and the Guardian have been sued and the media lawyers are wary of causing offence (as are media advertising departments which do profitable business with the company).
By contrast, New Labour isn't bowing to McDonald's out of fear, but gratitude. The party, which is meant to embody the prejudices of the inner-London polenta- and rocket-eating classes, whose leading members would be appalled if their own children developed a taste for Big Macs, is placing McDonald's at the heart of national life.
David Blunkett encourages it to sponsor the National Year of Reading and put education packs in schools which tell Susceptible' children to learn history by exploring 'the changes in use of the [local] McDonald's site' and English by identifying and conjugating the words 'Chicken' and 'McNuggets'.
Elizabeth II, first monarch of the New Era, is ordered by her spin doctors to patronise McDonald's and when the Millennium Dome opens, its corporate logo will be all over Peter Mandelson's mausoleum, because it has given the Government £12m in sponsorship. In return, Mandelson allowed the approaches to be dominated by a 1,000-seat McDonald's restaurant and gave the company a theatre inside as a stage for hundred of McPlays.
Now, many have complained that by siting the Dome in Greenwich, the Government has poured the bulk of the millennial money into London. But there will be one truly national celebration in 2000 and that will be a McDonald's advertising drive. In 250 towns, villages and cities, McDonald's will help the schools, which have a duty to protect those children Mr Justice Bell warned that the company was exploiting, stage McPlays on local history called 'Our Town Story'. (Cute touch that, don't you think? An American multinational appropriating the histories of 'our' towns?). McDonald's will provide professional musicians and actors and the shows will be transferred to the Dome.
As the McDonald's operations manual nearly said: 'Remember politicians are often the key decision-makers concerning where a family goes to eat. Ronald loves McDonald's and McDonald's food: And so does New Labour, because it loves Ronald. You should do everything you can to appeal to New Labour's love for Ronald and McDonald's - even if it costs £12m.