Even after two grueling, often grindingly tedious years, the case
popularly known as the McLibel trial is very much a study in extremes. On one
side of an ancient London courtroom sits Richard Rampton, a bewigged libel
lawyer for the McDonald's Corporation, ubiquitous purveyor of McNuggets, McRibs
and McChicken sandwiches. On the other side sit two dressed-down vegetarians:
Dave Morris, an unemployed postman, and Helen Steel, a part-time bartender.
On Nov. 1, the case, in which McDonald's is suing Ms. Steel and Mr. Morris for libel, reached its 292d day and achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the longest trial in British history. It is important not only for McDonald's, which says it is fighting for its reputation, but also for a loose international network of self-proclaimed libertarians, union organizers, vegetarians, environmentalists and animal rights campaigners who have seen the enemy and decided that it is McDonald's.
The trouble began in the 1980's, when Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel were sometime members of London Greenpeace, a group that describes itself as an informal, non-hierarchical collective of people who campaign for a range of social issues. (It is separate from the international Greenpeace movement.) In 1989 and 1990, the group distributed a pamphlet, "What's Wrong With McDonald's," which accused McDonald's of, among other things, promoting poor nutrition, exploiting children through advertising, encouraging litter, mistreating animals and workers, and destroying rain forests.
Unamused, McDonald's sued Ms. Steel, Mr. Morris and three other members of London Greenpeace for libel. The three others apologized and promised never to do it again. But Mr. Morris, now 42, and Ms. Steel, 31, vowed to fight back in court.
"We didn't feel we had a choice," Ms. Steel said. "What was there to apologize for? It's McDonald's who should be apologizing to the public for the damage they cause to society and the environment."
Mike Love, the head of communications for McDonald's U.K., said the company did not have a choice, either. "Going to court was very much a last resort," he said. "The purpose of this trial is to protect the company's reputation."
For the defendants, McLibel has been an uphill battle. Because they cannot afford lawyers, they are representing themselves. Because immediate transcripts of the trial cost about $560 a day, they wait three weeks until the price drops to $32. And since they spend all their free time reading McLibel-related documents, they have to hold strategy meetings in the subway, as they travel to and from the courthouse.
So far, the case has generated 40,000 pages of documents, 30,000 pages of transcripts and headaches for everyone concerned, including the judge, who spends much of his time explaining the fine points of law to the defendants. The defendants, too, are wearing out.
"It's like day and night working on the case, more or less," Ms. Steel said. "We haven't had a lot of time for anything else."
Under Britain's strict libel laws, the burden is on the defendants to establish that their allegedly libelous statements are true. In this case, Mr. Morris and Ms. Steel are faced with the daunting task of proving every far-reaching charge in the original anti-McDonald's pamphet. The effort has resulted in a parade of some 180 witnesses testifying on everything from the effects of used coffee cups on landfills to whether a Big Mac, fries and a shake constitute a nutritious meal.
McDonald's has countered all their claims, bringing in its top executives to testify to the company's integrity and responsibility. Meanwhile, the McLibel Two, as they are called, have become folk heroes to thousands of people around the world who are following the case on the Internet, where a much-expanded version of the pamphlet that McDonald's objected to in the first place is circulating.
"McDonald's is an icon for people who are campaigning against corporations who put profits above anything else," said Jessy Graham, a spokeswoman for McSpotlight, an anti-McDonald's web site that she says has been "visited" by computer operators four million times since February.
The Internet campaign has volunteers in 25 countries, including, in Craftsbury, Vt., a 50-year-old piano repairman named David Briars who says he wants to "oppose a-human entities that are obviously ruining our world."
"There are a lot of people who sit around vegetating in front of the television set who love McDonald's and think it's part of American life," said Mr. Briars, who maintains a large anti-McDonald's electronic mailing list and has himself become a vegetarian since the trial began. "But some people are starting to think, 'Maybe they have a little too much influence on our children'."
The trial is creaking on. In court this week, Ms. Steel and Mr. Morris are in the fifth week of summing up their defense. McDonalds's lawyers will follow, and then the presiding judge, who ruled early on that the facts would be too complicated for a jury to follow, will make the final decision.
Legal experts, even those sympathetic to the anti-McDonald's position, say that things don't look too promising for the McLibel Two. However, the defendants are holding firm.
"We feel we've already won, because McDonald's whole purpose in bringing this case was to try to intimidate its critics into silence," Ms. Steel said, "and they haven't done that."
GRAPHIC: Photos: After accusing McDonald's of a host of misdeeds against
humanity and the environment, David Morris and Helen Steel were sued for