Fast-food libel case enters second year of slow justice

Joe Joseph

The Times, June 29, 1995

reprinted in The San Francisco Examiner, June 29, 1995

"I NEVER thought I'd hear myself asking someone not to hurry in this case," the judge said wearily to a defendant as the McDonald's libel trial celebrated its first anniversary yesterday, "but don't rush your words."

It is tricky to tell who is the most astonished by the proceedings in Court 35 of the High Court, the longest libel suit ever, involving more than 30,000 pages of documents. More than 50 witnesses have been called. More than 100 are yet to come. If everyone is lucky the case might end by early next year.

What, ask tourists who stroll into the public seats, can all the fuss be about? Mr Justice Bell has been hearing the hamburger chain's libel action against two unemployed, penniless environmentalists who distributed a leaflet accusing McDonald's of environmental destruction and selling food linked to heart disease and cancer. McDonald's sued.

When the two alleged culprits, David Morris, a former postman, and Helen Steel, a former gardener, decided to defend themselves against McDonald's big guns in the form of Richard Rampton, London's top libel silk, McDonald's must have envisaged a speedy victory. Now it may be beginning to wonder that even if it wins the case in court, it may well have lost it among the public, which is boggled by the David and Goliath mismatch.

McDonald's has already run up huge legal fees. Mr Morris and Ms Steel, both on income support, have spent 10,000 to 15,000, raised from public donations. Mr Rampton looks as though he has reached the point at which even his handsome fees do not justify the torment of sitting in a courtroom listening to two environmentalists both naive about the ways of libel law nagging blue-suited McDonald's executives about company practices.

The executive in the witness box yesterday, Stan Stein, a senior McDonald's vice-president who flew in from Chicago, looked as happy to be there as a cat in a swimming pool. His body language when answering Mr Morris's DIY cross-examination left hand on hip, right hand on witness box, fuming, like a tourist with a heavy suitcase on a hot day waiting at a taxiless cab rank was barely controlled politeness. Mr Stein's expression said: "I usually wouldn't have more to say to guys like you than, 'Make that a large fries'." It was in sharp contrast to the deference with which he addressed Mr Justice Bell, who was "Your Lordship".

The judge found himself caught between acting as referee and acting as legal coach to the defendants, still learning how to steer a course through courtroom etiquette. "Just listen to me," he scolded Mr Morris at one point, like a kindly schoolmaster trying to nudge a naughty boy back on course for his own good.

Outside court, where she lit a candle on a birthday cake shaped like the McDonald's arches, Ms Steel said: "We believe we have already won in terms of we haven't been silenced. If it takes another six months, or another year, we'll see it through."

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