Big Mac finds trial hard to swallow

Danny Penman

The Independent, June 5, 1995

Pressure is mounting on McDonald's to call a halt to the longest libel trial in British legal history against two unemployed environmentalists.

The trial has been before the High Court for 11 months and is expected to last until at least next January. The hamburger chain accuses Helen Steel and Dave Morris of distributing a leaflet which said the corporation was responsible for acts of environmental destruction and that its food was linked to heart disease and cancer.

But instead of vindicating the company's approach to the environment, its workforce and the quality of its food, the case has become a public relations disaster. The corporation must now be keen to find a face saving formula to end the trial, which resumes today following a break last week for the school half-term holidays to allow Mr Morris to look after his child.

The fight of the couple, who have become known as the " McLibel Two" and are defending themselves, is believed to have convinced McDonald's that it may win the case but lose the public relations war. The couple's support team has become so adept at world-wide publicity coups that senior executives may want to halt the erosion of the company's image.

Ms Steel and Mr Morris, from north London, have little to lose and there is no reason to suppose that they will be interested in any settlement which does not vindicate their position.

The company claims the allegations contained in the leaflet "What's wrong with McDonald's?" are untrue and libellous. Senior executives are now thought to be searching for a formula that will allow them to end this trial, but which would also leave them free to prosecute others they consider to be making libellous statements.

From the start the libel trial was a high-risk strategy for the company. All the allegations in the leaflet have been aired and reported at length in the media. Damaging allegations about the company's ethics, work practices and food nutritional quality have been brought out in open court and disseminated world-wide. During the case, at the High Court in London, the judge was told that a McDonald's representative promised Japanese customers that eating the company's food would make them tall, blond and pale.

The defendants have also revealed that an advertising campaign in America was branded "misleading" by a US scientific watchdog and the nutritional quality of the company's food has been criticised by an assistant district attorney in Texas.

One of the burger chain's own expert witnesses admitted under cross-examination that a diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals is linked to heart disease and cancer. The alleged connection between a diet rich in McDonald's-type food and cancer and heart disease is the core libel as far as McDonald's is concerned.

Ms Steel and Mr Morris, who daily face the McDonald's team of lawyers, are now hailed as heroes by the environmental movement.

Back to Media Page