Fast-food giant slowly nibbling at the greens

Richard Woods

Sunday Times, March 12, 1995

When judgment is finally delivered, only one result will be certain in the Great McDonald's Libel Trial: the judge, Rodger Bell, will have become an expert on the world of hamburgers.

And a weird and wild world it is, too. The humble Big Mac and regular fries have managed to generate passion enough to produce rioting, picketing, religious discord and topless copycats.

In the libel battle, Mr Justice Bell, a blameless soul, has been sentenced to two years' hard labour presiding over a case eccentric even by the legal system's standards. McDonald's, the fast-food giant, is suing two impecunious environmental campaigners. The case opened in court last year and is not expected to close until next year. Last week Bell faced his 100th day on the bench weighing the evidence.

And, while court 35 of the Royal Courts of Justice reverberates to the grand themes of health, diet, capitalism, justice and free speech, the truth is that it is all a little reminiscent of Monty Python. Bell sits on the bench in his black robes with broad red sash. To the left is the leading libel lawyer Richard Rampton, QC for McDonald's, and his team, clad in wig and robes. To the right, wigless and dressed in casual sweaters, are David Morris, an unemployed postman, and Helen Steel, erstwhile gardener, representing themselves.

They allegedly libelled McDonald's by being associated with leaflets distributed in the 1980s. The leaflets alleged that McDonald's served unhealthy food, was cruel to animals, bad for the environment and exploited workers. McDonald's denies this.

When it issued writs for libel in 1990, Morris and Steel had barely a clue about legal procedure. Now they are veterans of numerous pre-trial hearings and weeks of grilling witnesses and jousting with a leading QC.

"The best free entertainment in London," is how Auberon Waugh has described the case. He must have looked in on a good day. In reality, it is barely more entertaining than watching fast food cooking in a very slow oven.

But McDonald's regularly serves up bizarre cases. A global empire with 14,000 restaurants in about 70 countries, it turns over 16 billion a year. In Britain alone it plans to add another 50 outlets this year to its existing 500. It is probably the most recognised brand in the world after Coca-Cola. But Coke has never ignited the emotions that bedevil Big Mac.

In January rioters in Copenhagen included McDonald's in their targets and trashed one of its restaurants. French farmers, probably never too fond of le cheeseburger, had the same idea a couple of years ago. They protested against a trade deal between Europe and America by storming McDonald's establishments in Lille and Amiens.

Last year a woman in America was awarded 1.9m for burns sustained when she spilled McDonald's coffee in her lap. The award, though, was later reduced to 300,000.

In Britain, some who do not relish the McDonald's flavour have picketed branches and published leaflets. The Muslim community, too, was none too happy during the World Cup when Big Mac printed paper bags that included an inscription from the Koran.

The burger, however, is often in the other hand. McDonald's is no slouch when it comes to defending its many corners in the world. It has crossed swords with Channel 4 over a film that made allegations about rainforest destruction and it took the Scottish TUC to task for publishing an article about pay and conditions at the company.

In Australia the corporation was quick to look over the shoulder of a restaurant whose selling point was topless serving wenches. McTits, as the establishment was brazenly called, soon found itself feeling the force of McDonald's ire.

Even the smallest of fry can fall foul of the McDonald's lawyers. The Vegetarian Society was asked for an apology after it quoted a celebrity criticising McDonald's. The Bournemouth Advertiser was threatened with a suit after quoting the views of an animal rights campaigner. It apologised.

The executives who run Big Mac, you see, are nothing if not tenacious. They endured a 12-year legal battle with the residents of Hampstead, in north London, to win the right to open a restaurant there. In Rome, too, they had to contest in the courts objections that McDonald's was out of keeping with local architectural and aesthetic standards.

None of these battles quite compares, however, with the present libel trial. The paperwork is enormous, and racks of files line the courtroom. Morris says he has amassed 30,000 to 40,000 pages of documents relating to the case. Each day in court, he says, produces a further 80 pages of transcript. Since legal aid is not available in libel cases, he and Steel have to wade through the morass themselves.

"The lack of legal aid is not just about representation," he says, "it's an administrative nightmare, too." The house where he lives with his five-year-old son, he says, is crammed with documents.

Another peculiarity is that while Morris and Steel are expected to cope with the complexities, a jury is not. McDonald's has successfully argued that the issues are too complex for a jury. So it is being heard by the judge alone.

This aspect, and the lack of legal aid, have prompted Liberty, the pressure group for civil liberties, to give modest assistance to Morris and Steel. Some lawyers have provided free services, and public donations have paid for the travel costs of the defendants' witnesses. "But they have done incredibly well on their own," says Liberty.

Indeed, despite the difficulties, Morris and Steel appear to have scored some points in their defence. For example, they asked an expert witness for McDonald's his opinion of the statement: "A diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt, and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals, is linked with cancer of the breast and bowel and heart disease."

The witness replied: "If it is being directed to the public then I would say it is a very reasonable thing to say." The statement was, the court heard, one of those referring to McDonald's food in the allegedly libellous leaflet.

But there is a long way to go yet. So far, the trial has concentrated on the subjects of advertising, nutrition and packaging waste. Animal welfare, hygiene and food poisoning are likely to be the focus until April. Beyond that, it will move on to examination of employment conditions at McDonald's.

The judge might not deliver his verdict until next year, making it possibly the longest libel trial in British history.

If McDonald's wins it will be vindicated but out of pocket. It would have no hope of recovering its multi-million-pound costs from the defendants since they have no money. But the company has always said that its purpose in pursuing the case was merely to establish the truth and expose untruths.

But whatever the outcome, the case seems to have heightened awareness of issues largely ignored before.

If Morris and Steel are cleared of libel, it will be a remarkable legal victory with enormous implications for McDonald's. If the defendants are held not to have libelled it, the allegation that its type of food may be linked with cancer could be, in the words of McDonald's QC, the "kiss of death".

Unless, of course, Big Mac were to seek even slower justice for fast food and appeal.

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