IT WAS the biggest food-fight in Britain's legal history, a trial that ground on for 313 days in London's High Court. The verdict in the marathon case is expected soon. McDonald's Corp. sued Dave Morris and Helen Steel for libel atter they refused to apologize for distnbuting a leaflet titled "What's Wrong With McDonald's?"
The leaflet accused McDonald's of selling unhealthy food. exploiting and underpaying staff, creating mountains of waste, being cruel to animals and contnbuting to the destruction of rain forests.
The company said the accusations were whoppers and served libel wnts on five campaigners. three of whom backed down and apoiogized. But Mr. Morris, who said he didn't like being bullied. and Ms. Steel chose to defend themselves in court. and later countersued, contending that they had been libeled by being branded liars.
Mr. Morris. 43. an unemployed former postal worker and single parent, and Ms. Steel, 31, a part-time bartender. reckon that if they lost it would take several hundred years of their combined annual earnings of £7,500 ($12,000) to meet McDonald's demand for up to £170,000 in damages. on top of legal costs estimated to run into millions.
It's all a bit academic," Ms. Steel said.
McDonald's said the allegations made in the leaflet were "not true and highly damaging." It said it had one to court as a "last resort" to stem false information, and denied that it sought tc stifle free speech. The company declined further comment on the libel trial until the verdict was delivered.
The case has fumed into a public relations quagmire tor McDonald's. Millions of copies of the leaflet have been distnbuted in Britain alone since the trial began almost three years ago.
In the most striking example of how the Internet can make a company a public target fot its enemies, the issue has reached a global audience through the world wide web (www.mcspotlight.org).
The so-called McLibel Support Campaign. which is not directly connected with the defendants has posted the transcript of the trial McDonaid's 500-page summing-up, accompanying documentation and a deconstruction of the corporation's own web site (www.mcdonalds.com).
A vast amount of data about McDonald's - unearthed thrcagh questioning and contnbuted by expert witnesses—has been placed on the public record. Evidence introduced in court can be quoted, and the defendants' accusations have amplified through the media. which invariably depicts the case in David vs. Goliath terms. Last weekend, Channel 4 television broadcast a twopart documentary based on a reconstruction of trial highlights.
UNDER Britain's strict libel laws. the onus was on the defendants to prove their innocence rather than for McDonald's to prove their guilt. (Of course, in the countersuit, McDonald's must prove its contention that the pair deliberately lied.)
The McLibel 2, as they are known, contend that every assertion in their leaflet has been backed up by evidence. The law required the defendants to substantiate every statement from primary sources, such as witnesses or official documents.
At one point, where Ms. Steel said she thought that the truth was a sufficient argument, the judge told her, "No, I am sorry, life is nor quite as simple as that."
Mr. Morris said the case could never have been brought in the United States, where debate about, say, the nutntional vaine of a cheeseburger would be consiaered to be in the public interest. A senior McDonald's executive acknowleaged in court that the alleged defamattons "are in the public domain in America to some extent."
Public comment posted on the mcspotlight Web site is running overwhelmingly against McDonald's, although a tew people criticize the campaigners.
"Let's face facts.'' wrote one. vou are all a bunch of vegan Commie whiners. Go move to Red China and eat rice for all I care, but leave my Big Mac the hell alone."
Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel had to represent themselves in the trial because they could not afford a lawyer, and legal aid is not available for libel cases. McDonald's. which has 2l, 000 stores in 101 countries and reported eamings ot' $39 billion in 1996, hired a legal team headed by Richard Rampton, who specializes in libel cases.
Although they had not five minutes of legal training between them, the defendants have now spent more time speaking in court than some professional barristers.
So-called litigants in person get no help or guidance. but Dan Mills, a lawyer who is co- ordinating the McLibel campaign, said the dressed-down defendants put up an effective opposition to McDonald's bewigged and gown- wearing counsel.
Mr. Mills said Ms. Steel was methodical and came to court most days with a list of carefully prepared questions, while Mr. Morris tended to move around and cut loose with unexpected lines of attack. In all. they questioned 130 witnesses, and the two sides obtained written submissions from 50 more witnesses.
"It was a unique opportunity to cross-examine top executives," Ms. Steel said. 'Normally. campaigners get turned away at the gates or they get a line from a public relations person. But in this situation, McDonald's executives couldn't walk away."
The trial has attracted the attention of a wide range of campaigners. from vegetarians and trade unionists to animal liberationists and ecologists. Sympathizers contributed about £35,000 to the detense funds. The money was spent on bringing defense witnesses to the trial, paying for court transcupts and administrative matters.
Win or lose. the case is not over yet. The defendants said they were determined to take it to the European Court of Human Rights to argue that they had been deprived of justice because the judge had refused to allow the issue to be heard before a jury.
The decision followed McDonald's contention that the issue of a purported link between diet and cancer was too complex to be assessed by a jury.
"We believe that because we have been denied a jury the world's public are the real jury," Mr. Morris said. "It is the public that should be deciding what the problems are and what kind of society they want to live in, not judges, not governments not multinationals."
Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel also said that if they lost, they would seek damages from the private detectives McDonald's hired to infiltrate their London Greenpeace group, since they had helped distribute some of the anti-McDonald's leaflets as part of their undercover work.
One of the investigators defected to the defense, saying she did not think there was anything wrong with what the group was doing.