Big Mac Under Attack

By Robin Knight

U.S. News & World Report: December 25, 1995 / January 1, 1996

BIG MAC UNDER ATTACK. Perhaps it was a good idea at the time. But when McDonald's began libel proceedings 18 months ago in England against a pair of penniless, out-of-work environmental activists who had claimed in a leaflet that it sells food linked to heart disease, destroys rain forests and abuses its work force, the world's biggest hamburger chain could have had no inkling of the expensive public relations disaster that lay ahead. This month, the case became the longest civil action in English legal history when proceedings passed the 198-day mark. Court 35 at London's Royal Courts of Justice is now a free-entertainment mecca. Some 85 witnesses have given evidence, and 30,000 documents have been produced in court. The McDonald's legal bill tops $3 million. The accused, Dave Morris and Helen Steel, are defending themselves with the help of welfare checks and a McLibel Support Group, which posts monthly bulletins on the Internet.

"We've won already," Steel claims, "because we've not been silenced." McDonald's disagrees. It argues it had to protect its squeaky-clean image. Another battle is going on outside the court. Since the trial began, protesters have handed out 1.5 million leaflets critical of McDonald's. The fast-food giant's response is a media-aimed paper blitz intended to prove the purity of its products.

How long might the David-vs.-Goliath match continue? Through next summer seems the best guess.

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