McLibel Case Nears End

by Thomas K. Grose

Both Sides See Victory In U.K.'s Longest Civil Trial

Special for USA Today; October 24 1996; USA

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London - McVictory is finally in sight, but at what cost?

That's the question McDonald's Corp. must be asking itself as it approaches the conclusion of the longest-running legal saga in U.K. history.

The U.S. fast-food giant expacts to win.. But its opponents - two left-wing, vegetarian activists who have been acting as their own defense attorneys - hardly seem beaten down.

Indeed, they've already declared themselves the victors in the court of public opinion.

They may have a point.

Closing arguments in the so-called "McLibel" case got underway this week and will last until mid-December. The judge's ruling should come early next year, roughly 2.5 years after the trial began.

Already in the Guiness Book of Records as the longest civil trial in British history, at months end it will become the U.K.'s longest trial of any sort. Neither side expected a legal marathon when they walked into London's Royal Courts of Justice on June 28, 1994.

The defendants had printed and distributed a pamphlet, What's Wrong With McDonald's? Everything They Don't Want You To Know, Dave Morris, a laid-off postal worker who collects unemployment, and Helen Steel, who has since become a part-time barmaid, chargedin the booklet that the company sells food that lacks nutritional value, exploits workers and children and damages the environment.

When the world's largest purveyor of hamburgers sued Morris and Steel for libel, the pair opted for the trial.

Legal experts expect McDonald's to win, if for no other reason than British libel laws require the defendants to prove the accuracy of their claims. U.S. law requires that a person suing for libel prove the allegations are false.

But, even if McDonald's wins, it may be a Pyrrhic victory - and one at great cost to its image, if not its bank balance.

The trial may cost McDonald's more than $16 million, a figure the company won't confirm.

Meanwhile, the McLibel Support Group, a looseknit organisation of sympathisers, has already raised nearly $48,000 for the McLibel 2".

Cost to taxpayers, incalculable, but not unsubstantial, given the cost of paying for the judge, court personnel and the paperwork invovled.

Why did the trial last so long? There were 180 witnesses. Morris and Steel legal inexperience didn't speed things up. The courtroom drama had the pacing of a fast moving glacier.

Eric Barendt, a libel law expert at University College London, says the trial has not only been a waste of tax money, but a waste of time for the company. "Its given currency to the charges and gained McDonald's a reputation as bullies," he says.

Noting that the "evidence is overwhelmingly in our favour," spokesman Mike Love adds, "What price do you put on a reputation?"

Even Morris, during a lunch break on the second day of his closing statements, avoided predicting a favourable ruling. Instead, he suggested theirs will be a moral victory.

"We have not been silenced," he said, noting that some 2 million copies of their pamphlet have been distributed since the trial began.

Indeed, not only has McDonald's failed to quash the pamphlet, they've inadvertently given Morris and Steel a global bully pulpit. The trial has attracted international media attention. Cyber supporters have created "McSpotlight" an Internet website.

Finally, around the time that Justice Rodger Bell makes his ruling, Macmillan will publish the book, McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial, by Morris and Steel with help from John Vidal, a journalist with the newspaper, The Guardian.

See also:
  • The End Is Near In McDonald's Libel Trial - The Independent; 20th October 1996; UK

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