Fast-food libel case slow going

Richard Woods

Sunday Times, November 6, 1994, Sunday

LIKE some of their customers perhaps, the burger bosses at McDonald's must be wondering what they have bitten into with their libel action against two environmental campaigners. No quick, tasty legal snack here. More of a fatty morass that's hard to chew.

The battle of corporate might against two individuals began in June and could last until April. It has already consumed more than 40 days in court, but less than a quarter of the 170 witnesses have been heard.

In the splendid wood-panelled court, McDonald's is represented by a bewigged, leading QC and his juniors, with the support of a large firm of solicitors. This expense all stems from McDonald's claim that David Morris and Helen Steel, a former postman and gardener respectively, distributed leaflets allegedly libellous of the fast-food chain.

By contrast Morris and Steel are conducting their own defence with little professional help despite the complexity of the case. This produces the spectacle of the executive suits of McDonald's being interrogated by Morris in sweater and jeans with unkempt hair and three days' stubble.

No contest, you might think. Yet the defence appears to have scored some points, and McDonald's is now attempting to amend part of its statement of claim. The company says it is merely being more precise on one point and has not changed the substance of its claim.

The whole affair is fascinating. If McDonald's wins it will have vindicated the reputation of the Big Mac. If it loses, humble pie will be on the menu in a big way.

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