Hearing Becomes The Biggest Mac Of All

A Tale of Two Court Cases: McLibel Breaks Record on 292nd Day

by Patricia Wynn Davies

Legal Affairs Editor; The Independent; 2 November 1996; UK

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Someone had brought along a model of a milestone to the picket outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. The "McLibel" trial had reached its 292nd day - making it the longest of any kind in British legal history.

To anyone who has ever had dealings with the courts, it is the kind of record that inspires only weariness and depression.

But Helen Steel and Dave Morris, the McLibel defendants, were in doughty mood yesterday. "It is a milestone for us and critics of the fast food industry, but a millstone for the $30 billion a year McDonald's corporation."

The McLibel Support Campaign is comparing the marathon battle with the fast food giant to the 18th century Tichborne personation case, cited in the Guiness Book of Records, which comprised a civil and a criminal case lasting a total of 291 days.

Apart from a connection in both to South American rainforests, any similarities between them end there.

In the Tichborne case, where an imposter posed as the heir to a fortune after being presumed to have met his death in the South American jungles, society ladies crammed the public galleries and the Chief Justice had to institute a ticket system, Botham v Khan style.

The public never turns up for the McLibel saga, a non-jury trial before Mr Justice Bell with no histronics, just painstaking, detailed allegation and counter-allegation. Even the ever-conscientious Press Association news agency has given up trying to make a story of the proceedings as the two litigants in person seek to refute each and every allegation by Richard Rampton, McDonald's ultra smooth QC.

For Ms Steel, a 31 year-old otherwise full-time single parent, and Mr Morris, 42, who works in a club, there was no option but to fight the case after McDonald's served writs in September 1990 over a London Greenpeace (no relation to the worldwide Greenpeace organisation) leaflet entitled "What's Wrong With McDonald's".

Three other defendants reluctantly apologised over the six page factsheet's allegations over the promotion of "junk" food, exploitation of workers and animals, advertising to children and damage to the environment.

For Ms Steel and Mr Morris, veterans of CND, the anti-poll tax campaign, the Wapping picket and the miners' strike, caving in was not in their nature.

As the McDonald's corporation has thrown seemingly unlimited resources at the case, the exercise appears increasingly futile. The McLibel Support Campaign claims that 2 million copies of the allegedly libellous leaflet have been handed out in Britain alone since the case began.

And in a foretaste of a European Court of Human Rights battle still to come, Ms Steel and Mr Morris complain that the UK's "oppressive" libel laws have denied them legal aid but allowed the corporation to demand proof over a wide range of "common sense" issues in the leaflet, like the fact that packaging ends up as litter.

The case, which the image-concious corporation hoped to either settle or dispose of within a month, has become a nightmare, spawning what seems to be a largely libel-proof, ever growing anti-McDonald's information exchange.

At the McLibel Support Campaign, Dan Mills, a 28 year old former trainee solicitor with city law firm Lovell White Durrant, claims thousands of supporters round the world, while McInformation Network, an international network of volunteers, claims its McSpotlight internet site - containing masses of everything McDonald's would rather people were not told - has been accessed more than 4 million times.

Try as it may, McDonald's is waging an increasingly uphill - perhaps impossible - battle to force the genie back into the bottle.

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