Big Mac On Trial

The Age (Melbourne, Australia)

Thursday 14 March 1996

BRITAIN'S longest civil trial is a ponderous but meaty affair as you might expect from a case in vhich two penniless anarchists are facing down McDonald's the world's biggest fast-food chain, there is plenty' to chew on and more than a little sizzle. Columnist Auheron Waugh calls it the best free show in town and, like that other long-running entertainment, Mousetrap, the "McLibel" case boasts a strong cast and no certainty about whodunnit.

On Tuesday, day 231, the protagonists were still months away from judgment. Beneath the Gothic ceiling of the Royal Courts of Justice, Richard Rampton, the Queen's counsel McDonald's has hired at $4000 a day to defend its honor, adjusted his wig, while jobless former postman Dave Morris, wearing a crumpled tartan shirt, rustled through notes.

Mr Morris and his co-accused, former gardener Helen Steel, are defending themselves against a charge of libelling McDonald's by, distributing leaflets accusing the food chain of everything from destruction of the rainforest to poor working conditions. Ms Steel, 30, described by one newspaper as "too poor to afford make-up", was not in court. She was at home, exhausted by the relentlessness of the trial, but would return, according to Mr Morris.


Paul Preston, McDonald's UK president, told the trial:

"If a million people go into McDonald's, I would not expect more than 150 items of packaging to end up as litter."

The Japenese president of McDonald's, quoting from the company's authorised biography, in the trial, noted:

"If we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for 1000 years, we will become taller, our skin will become white and our hair blond."

Edward Oakley, McDonald's UK senior vice-president, said:

"I can see the dumping of waste to be a benefit. Otherwise you will end up with lots of vast empty gravel-pits all over the country."

The case has become a celebrated fixture in London, much to the chagrin of McDonald's, which believed it had an open-and-shut case that would last a few weeks when wtrits were served on five anarchists in 1990. The company didn't know who penned the offending pamphlet, What's Wrong with McDonald's, so it hired private detectives to locate leading figures among London's Greenpeace Group, the publishers. The organisation is an anarchist group, distinct from the better-known Greenpeace International, and while no one can remember who wrote the leaflet, three of those served apologised, leaving Mr Morris and Ms Steel, who refused to back down. By choosing to tackle 40,000 documents., 20,000 pages of transcript and 100 witnesses, the "McLibel Two" have kept Big Mac on the rack for 20 months. The case, including 28 pre-trial hearings and three trips to the appeal court, should end by Christmas.

While the company, with a turnover of $52 million a year, is expected to win, the defendants have no money and won't be able to pay costs. But, despite their lack of legal expertise, they have already grilled top executives, teasing out private information and generating considerable public sympathy. It is an uncomfortable scenario for one of the world's most powerful multi- nationals, now destined to spend millions without gaining its objective. This is because the case has, inevitably, been seen as a David and Goliath battle, in which Mr Rampton's $13,000-a-day legal team wields Establishment clout against a jeans-and-jumper-clad duo who compose their case on the Tube while travelling into court.

McDonald's may well be judged blameless, with entirely legitimate business practices, and yet still find the disputed leaflet widely circulated. Supporters of Morris and Steel have already placed the offending information on the Internet, where its "McSpotlight" slot has been accessed 180,000 times.

The case started off well for the food chain. Mr Justice Bell denied requests by Mr Morris and Ms Steel for a jury trial, agreeing with McDonald's that it would be too complex for ordinary people to understand. And the defendants, without legal aid and money to buy court transcripts, overcame their lack of training to stage a feisty defence.

''It's a show trial, but we're winning,'' Mr Morris muttered as Mr Justice Bell got the show on the road on Tuesday. "Their business practices are on trial, and we are making inroads." A McDonald's spokesman, Mike Love, does not agree. and says the case is about the ''responsibility to tell the truth''. The company had no choice but to challenge the "lies" directed against it.

Mark Stephens, a lawyer who has advised the McLibel pair, thinks Mr Morris and Ms Steel have acquitted themseles well. ''It's incredibly difficult to do what they're doing,"' he say's. "They're good." But, as Mr Morris's rambling attempt to pick holes in the company's hamburger-grilling protocol revealed, the pair would have been more effective with legal help.

Still, the defendants have won a few telling rounds, including getting Sydney Arnott, McDonald's cancer expert, to comment on the disputed leaflet. He was asked his opinion of the statement that: "A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals is linked with cancer of the breast and bowel and heart disease." Dr Arnott replied:

"If it's being directed to the public, then I would say it is a very reasonable thing to say." He was, however, then told it was from the allegedly libellous leaflet.

McDonald's claims nothing that has come out of the trial has caught it off-guard, and denies that the whole exercise is a huge public relations fiasco. But, as one newspaper commented, it has been McHell for McDonald's lately, and even though the McLibel Two are worn out, they are not worn down. Their very personal beef means this is one bunfight Ronald McDonald will not celebrate.

Dave Morris and Helen Steel, the McLibel Two, stand accused of defaming hamburger giant McDonald's They are likely to lose, but writes Peter Ellingsen from London, that doesn't mean the fast food chain will win.
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