McLibel, the High Court's David and Goliath battle between two green activists
and the might of McDonald's, ended yesterday with the fast food giant winning
But "David" - penniless Helen Steel and Dave Morris - claimed they were the real victors of the 314-day trial.
Mr Justice Bell ruled at the end of the longest case in English legal history that the company had been libelled by most of the allegations in a leaflet called What's Wrong With McDonald's?, published in the late 80s and still in circulation.
But the judge found the leaflet was truthful when it accused McDonald's of paying low wages to its workers, being responsible for cruelty to some of the animals used in its food, and exploiting children in its advertising campaigns. McDonald's is estimated to have spent #10 million in legal cost suing former postman Mr Morris, 43, and former gardener Ms Steel, 31, over a long-running campaign by environmentalists who accused it of poisoning its customers, exploiting Third World countries and employing cheap labour. Because legal aid is not available for fighting libel cases, the pair mounted their own defence in a case described by Michael Mansfield QC as the trial of the century.
The epic drama has already been covered in a book and TV series and has its own Internet site where the leaflet has pride of place.
McDonald's has acknowledged it will never be able to claim its costs or damages from the unemployed pair whose whole lives for the past three years have been taken up studying law and preparing for each day's hearing.
In an extraordinary act of defiance after the court ruling they were handing out the same pamphlet to the crowds gathered outside the law courts, shouting: "Judge for yourselves, read the leaflets. We will not be silenced." Mr Morris claimed they had lost the case on a technicality and vowed to take their fight to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge Britain's "oppressive" libel laws.
Friends of the Earth and top campaigning barrister Mr Mansfield all threw their weight behind the two defendants.
Mr Mansfield said the outcome represented a major victory for Miss Steel and Mr Morris.
Chairing a news conference, he said: "The British public owe a debt of gratitude to these two people.
"They have dared to tread where no others have dared to tread, where those with resources have not dared to go."
Paul Preston, chairman and chief executive officer of McDonald's Restaurants Ltd (UK), welcomed the judgment. He said the company was broadly satisfied. "We wanted to show these serious allegations to be false and I am pleased we have done so," he said.