Big Mac Takes on the Veggie Burghers

John Sweeny

The Observer, July 3, 1994

McM'LUD beamed vaguely in the direction of McM'learned McFriend - but he wasn't there. Instead, an owlish unshaven McKropotkin and a sister anarchist stared back: the McLibel Two.

The case is one of the most bizarre libel trials in modern times. At stake is the good name of the hamburger chain McDonald's, which is suing two unemployed vegetarians for allegedly publishing a 'factsheet' which styled the world's largest junk food firm as 'McDollars, McGreedy, McCancer, McMurder'.

Anarchists being what they are, they cannot afford libel lawyers. The British libel law being what it is, there is no legal aid for the defendants.

Ergo, Mr Justice Bell - a younger version of Wilfred Hyde White, minus panama - had last week to cope with the agony of untrained advocates defending themselves. To rub it in, defendant Dave Morris appeared in Court 35 without a jacket and tie. Co-defendant Helen Steel wore a purple T-shirt. There could not have been any more monstrous a subversion of juridical etiquette had two odd-toed ungulates addressed the court.

McDonald's, on the other hand, has Richard Rampton: an urbane silk who, I'll wager, costs more per diem than six chicken McNuggets and regular fries. However, with a global turnover of $ 24 billion, McDonald's could afford several million refreshers before having to count the change.

The trial is a battle between the largest maker of hamburgers and two vegans on the dole. If that sounds like bullying, then, as M'learned friends say, so be it.

The action is played out against a three-way culture clash. The veggies come from north London and deploy a deep-rooted, earnest and entirely humourless dislike of Big Mac. The men from Big Mac come from Middle America and have a deep-rooted, earnest and entirely humourless attitude towards criticism. The lawyers are upper-class Home Counties types. Each clique has its own buzz-word. The veggies revere 'animals'; the men from Big Mac 'customers' and the lawyers 'bundles'.

Mr Rampton is a master of orotund circumlocution. For example: on Friday he examined Robert McKinley Beavers Jr, a corporate vice-president of McDonald's. Rampton: 'I don't wish in any way to sound offensive but not all your ancestors were Caucasian . . . ?' What M'learned friend wanted to say was: 'You're black, aren't you?' Mr Beavers Jr's blackness was adduced because it was evidence that McDonald's is a good thing and not, as the defendants suggest, a bad thing. McDonald's knows it won't get any serious money out of the McLibel Two. It knows it won't even get its costs, Mr Rampton told the judge. But it will a get a clean bill of health from a British court - or that appears to be the hope. That strategy started to be derailed from the word go.

The first witness in the stand was Paul Preston, president of McDonald's UK. 'I'm Big Mac, if you will,' he offered. A beefy mid-westerner, he exuded numbed incomprehension at the defendants' charges. Mr Rampton twitted Mr Preston with their claims: 'Do McDonald's destroy rainforests?' 'We do not.' 'Are his burgers unhealthy?' 'I've heard of the term "craving" but never of anyone being addicted to Big Macs.' Constipation . . . ? 'We're continually concerned with our menu.'

'Is it true that McDonald's adds 12 different chemicals to its lettuce leaves?' 'No.' 'Does McDonald's exploit children?' 'No.'

The leaflet uses the word 'poisonous'. 'Leaving aside one incident in Preston in 1991 . . .' said Mr Rampton. Aha! And what was that incident? A case of food poisoning, admitted by McDonald's, which no one would have been reminded of had not the corporate giant brought its case.

Mr Rampton returned to his irony, as light in touch as an electric cattle prod: 'In what way is McDonald's responsible for torture and murder?' It was not. 'Does it matter to you that rainforests will be around when your children are grown up?' 'Of course. And maybe, some day, hopefully I will have grandchildren . . .' A muffled simper passed round the courtroom.

Rampton turned to the subject of trash which, thanks to American cultural imperialism, we all know means rubbish. Did McDonald's allow it near its restaurants, asked Mr Rampton. Mr Preston went into a long threnody for Ray Kroc, founder of the chain, who used to pick up litter himself.

The one thing that should be in Court 35 - a jury - is missing. The burger lawyers managed to persuade Judge Bell that the issues were too complex for a jury to take in. The judge will decide. That a jury is incapable of determining an action that turns on the right to free speech of British citizens - however boring or silly, however bunged up with lentils -seems to be a new gap in our democratic defences.

The case McContinues.

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