An indigestible case of fast food and slow justice

The McLibel trial reaches its 100th day, but there is no end in sight, says Maurice Weaver

The Daily Telegraph, March 9, 1995

AT the Charing Cross branch of McDonald's yesterday staff were busy producing fast American food for busy Londoners. Just along the Strand, the High Court was serving up slow British justice to the men from the Big Mac. The epic defamation trial dubbed the McLibel case reaches its 100th day today with all concerned planning summer and even winter holidays around it. The burger giant, global flag-bearer of US capitalism, is suing two unemployed green activists, Mr David Morris, 41, and Miss Helen Steel, 29. It was needled by leaflets allegedly distributed by the couple levelling accusations of a frightful array of corporate sins such as exploiting staff, causing litter and food poisoning and destroying the rain forests. The company says it had "no choice but to take steps to stop these lies". Aware of its vulnerability to international radicalism, it hopes its determination and maybe subsequent victory, will deter detractors worldwide. But it also knows that the image of the lion chasing the mouse can make it enemies. Going to court is a risk venture, necessarily providing a reminder of the hard commercialism behind Ronald McDonald's clownish smile. Moreover, by taking up the defendants' allegations, the company knows it is opening the door to courtroom debate that could be commercially counter-productive. Yesterday, for example, its counsel, Mr Richard Rampton, QC, was busy eliciting from Mr Keith Kenny, 31, McDonald's senior quality assurance supervisor in Britain, more than its customers might want to know about burger hygiene. How many micro-organisms per gram of raw meat its hygiene analysts consider acceptable, like the fat content of a Quarter Pounder, and how bone-grinding machines are cleaned. The objective was to prove how meticulous the company is. Such open discussion of what, in PR terms, must surely be the unmentionable was the inevitable penalty of going to law and at the rear of the courtroom Mr Sid Nicholson, 63, McDonald's executive in charge of the case, listened in gloomy resignation. A retired police chief superintendent from East Finchley, where McDonald's has its UK headquarters, he first handled the case when he was the company's chief security officer. Now he is corporate ombudsman and stuck with it. His job usually involves handling grumbles about cold burgers or slow service. But this is different. He said: "It's like the Blitz, except that nobody seems to have a sense of humour." Stacks of evidence tower as tall as a man and in the corner of the court lies a jumble of burger promotional material. Litter, marketing methods and the alleged manipulation of children are all issues. The company is raising the defendants' main accusations one by one. The environment, animal welfare and advertising methods have been covered in the first 100 days. Hygiene standards are being tackled now. Employment policy and the rain forest are for the future. The case has become a way of life. Mr Rampton says that he loves burgers and his children "live on them". But at lunchtimes he sometimes heads with Mr Nicholson to a nearby Italian restaurant. The two jobless defendants either bring sandwiches or retire to "a little caff" down Fleet Street. They are both members of London Greenpeace - unconnected to Greenpeace International - have no legal aid in spite of an appeal to the European Court, and are defending themselves. They are in marked contrast to the company counsel with his wig and mannerisms. Yesterday Miss Steel protested to Mr Justice Bell about unequal treatment. Told by the judge that they could not produce documents without giving the plaintiffs sight of them first, she complained that the restriction had not applied in reverse. "That can only be because you didn't raise it," she was told. She replied: "Then we are disadvantaged because we don't know what the legal situation is." McDonald's are reckoned to be spending £2 million on the case. Miss Steel and Mr Morris could face bankruptcy, but he says: "Another 100 days, another 200 days, it doesn't worry us."

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