Marathon McDonald's Libel Trial Near Climax

By Patricia Reaney

Reuters; 15th Jun 1997

LONDON, June 15 (Reuter) - After 313 days of testimony, eight weeks of closing speeches and six months of deliberation, the judge in a libel case pitting the McDonald's fast food chain against two penniless activists is expected to deliver his verdict this week.

The "David and Goliath" trial of the part-time barmaid and the unemployed single father accused of libelling the $30 billion a year corporation is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as England's longest ever trial.

It has also been the subject of a two-part television documentary, a 300-page book and countless newspaper and magazine articles. It has spawned support groups and its own Internet website which features 19,000 pages of court testimony.

Dubbed "McLibel" by the British press, the case is estimated to have cost 10 million pounds ($16 million) from its start in 1990 to its expected end on Thursday.

"This is a remarkable case because of a whole range of things, not least its length, not least the relative strength of the two parties, the complexity of the case as well and the involvement of the Internet and support groups," said David McNeill of the Law Society, a professional association of lawyers.

"It is actually an extraordinary case and nobody would doubt that."

Helen Steel, 31, and Dave Morris, 43, have denied that they defamed the world's biggest restaurant chain in a six-page pamphlet entitled "What's Wrong With McDonalds", and have spent most of the past three years trying to prove it.

The 1984 pamphlet produced by London Greenpeace, a little known group with no relation to Greenpeace International, alleged that the burger giant promoted an unhealthy diet, ruined the environment, was hostile to trade unions and exploited children and workers.

After receiving libel writs from McDonald's in 1989 three of the five London Greenpeace leaders apologised, but Steel and Morris were determined to have their day in court.

Their day turned into years. Court proceedings began in June 1994 after 28 pre-trial hearings and ended late last year.

Denied legal aid and with no training the unlikely duo, who were always casually dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, conducted their own defence, and by all accounts, held their own against the impeccably wigged and robed Richard Rampton, one of England's top libel lawyers.

"I cannot think of a case in which the legal cards have been so spectaculary stacked against one party," said legal commentator Marcel Berlins.

Writer Auberon Waugh described the proceedings in the sombre courtroom number 35 of London's Royal Courts of Justice as the "best free entertainment in town". Leading lawyer Michael Mansfield has called it "the trial of the century".

Tourists visiting nearby attractions sometimes wandered into the court to hear the latest evidence and get a taste of the English legal system.

Because the case was so complicated -- dealing with testimony from 180 witnesses on topics ranging from food packaging and manufacturing to labour practices, the destruction of rain forests and health issues -- judge Rodger Bell deemed it too complicated for a jury and will return the verdict alone.

Since Steel and Morris are virtually broke, McDonald's cannot hope to recoup the multi-million dollar tab for the trial. The corporation has said it wants a retraction and an injunction preventing the defendants repeating the allegations.

Regardless of what Bell decides, Steel and Morris say they will have no regrets.

If the verdict goes against them they plan to appeal and may take their case to the European Court of Human Rights claiming the libel laws in England are oppressive.

"Having been denied a jury trial, we believe the world's public are in effect a wider jury," they said. "Whatever the verdict, the need to scrutinise and challenge multi-nationals has never before been greater and so the campaign is certain to continue to grow."

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