Burger Follies

The Economist, February 25, 1995

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. There, in the gothic splendour of Court 35, a slow-motion farce is grinding relentlessly away at taxpayers' expense.

For the past eight months, the bewigged lawyers and suited executives of McDonald's, the fast-food giant with annual worldwide sales of £24 billion ($ 38 billion), have been confronting two unemployed "social revolutionaries". Dave Morris, a former postman, and Helen Steel, a gardener, members of an obscure environmental group, London Greenpeace, are defending themselves without legal representation.

In 1984 their group, which has no connection with the well-known Greenpeace International, published a pamphlet whose character is best summed up by its inventive chapter headings: "McDollar, McGreedy, McCancer, McMurder, McRipoff, McTorture, and McGarbage." The pamphlet accused McDonald's of underpaying its staff, destroying rain forests, torturing animals, corrupting children, and exploiting the third world. In the words of McDonald's counsel, Richard Rampton QC, it had been charged with "wrecking the planet for the sake of a fast buck". When the case began at last in June 1994, after 26 preliminary hearings spread over four years, observers predicted that it would take three months. Court schedules prepared by the plaintiff's lawyers now indicate that it may last 18 months, with judgment possibly delayed until 1996.

The trial, without a jury, is presided over by Mr Justice Bell, who is doing what he can to remedy the imbalance of legal firepower by helping the two defendants focus their case. "Are you suggesting that McDonald's shouldn't be able to advertise a burger and fries and a coke to have as one's lunch?" he prodded. Despite the judge's efforts, the pace is excruciatingly slow. On March 10th the case will celebrate its 100th day in court. So far only just over a quarter of the 180 witnesses have been heard. Among them has been Paul Preston, president of McDonald's British subsidiary, who told the court that he did not consider his business's basic rate of pay of £3.10 an hour to be low. He declined to reveal his own salary.

No expense is being spared by McDonald's in pursuing its case. One of its many witnesses from the United States, David Kouchoukous, an environmental consultant, told the court that McDonald's uses only 13.6 square miles of timber land a year to supply its world-wide business with paper plates, cups and saucers. London Greenpeace had accused it of consuming 60 times as much.

The cost of this legal extravaganza will reach several million pounds by the time the case is concluded. Most of this will have to be borne by McDonald's, as the defendants have no money. Court costs, however, will have to be met by the taxpayer. According to the Lord Chancellor's department, the daily cost of providing a judge, courtroom, ushers, stenographers and all the other paraphernalia of a High Court action is £7,600. Assuming the case takes 300 days in court, that means the total bill to be picked up by the taxpayer will amount to nearly £2 1/2m.

Is it worth it? Even if McDonald's can prove that it has been unfairly traduced, the company's shareholders might ask whether it was sensible to sue two environmentalists with no money and no clout. Quite apart from the amount of managers' time swallowed up over more than a decade, the net effect of the trial has been to publicise charges which the vast majority of McDonald's customers in 70 countries across the world would have dismissed as the ravings of green extremists. The public interest is no less debatable. In addition to the cost to the taxpayer, the case will occupy a senior High Court judge for as much as 18 months at a time when delays in civil cases coming to trial are causing concern.

The bizarre case of McLibel is a reminder that the current law is less a safeguard of individual reputation than a casino for the rich and powerful. The Lord Chancellor confirmed last November that he is committed to reform.

But the omens are not promising. The history of libel reform is one of endless procrastination. Until the government makes up its mind on what to do about privacy, it appears unlikely that there will be much support in Parliament for a new libel law.

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