Big Mac vs Small Fries

Article excerpt

`Milord," says Richard Rampton QC, "perhaps I may be allowed to lead on the arithmetic . . ."

Mr Justice Bell, suave, wry, nods. Mr Rampton, fastidious, grey, unremitting, refers to his notes. There he finds that, if there are 470,000 purchases averaging two meals per purchase annually in each of 521 British branches of McDonald's, then 489,740,000 meals are sold every year. There is a sort of pause as all our imaginations struggle to cope with this unthinkable, glutinous avalanche of Coke, burgers, fries, shakes and McNuggets.

The UK chief executive, Paul Preston, buttoned-down, buttoned-up, shiny, amiable, nods to indicate that the figure sounds about right. Meanwhile, the two defendants, anarchic, intense, angry, unemployed, watch the transcript rolling by on the laptop computer screen.

Weird and significant things have happened in the mad Gothic wedding-cake fantasy of the Royal Courts of Justice, but probably never anything quite as weird or as significant as the case they call McLibel. Last week, McDonald's, whose twin golden arches bestride the world, embarked on a libel case against two north Londoners, Dave Morris, a single parent and former postman, and Helen Steel, an unemployed gardener.

The case will last more than three months, with each side calling up to 80 witnesses. Since September 1990 there have been 28 pre-trial hearings. Poverty and the lack of legal aid in libel cases oblige Mr Morris and Ms Steel to conduct their own defence. Should they lose, neither would be remotely capable of paying any costs - likely to be at least pounds 1m. In addition, Mr Rampton has said that McDonald's is not seeking damages. The company simply wants to clear its name, to keep Ronald smiling and the arches golden.

At one level, one can see why. This is the ultimate one-product company. Oh sure, you can have Filet-o-Fish instead of the Big Mac, large fries instead of the small. But this is all one thing - food that is fast and served the world over with the technique and uniform, have-a-nice-day impersonality that McDonald's invented, refined and perfected. Taint this one thing and the whole $24bn-a-year edifice is imperilled.

"Yes," admits the spokesman, "we are litigious, but we don't feel we've got any other option."

This case is about an attempted tainting. It centres on a leaflet - in circulation, says McDonald's, for at least 10 years and latterly available worldwide - that was published by an organisation called Greenpeace (London), which, confusingly, has no connection whatsoever with Greenpeace.

This leaflet is a small masterpiece, an exquisitely paranoid distillation of all that people believe, suspect or fear may be wrong with big, smooth, glossy multinational corporations. It accuses McDonald's of poisoning its customers, starving the Third World, exploiting its staff, destroying the environment, torturing animals and corrupting children. It is, says McDonald's, a pack of lies.

Fair enough, except that this trial must, for the company, be a very high-risk strategy. For a start it publicises the allegations. People - a term now in effect synonymous with the phrase "McDonald's customers" - are not particularly conscientious about reading trial reports, they just pick up the good bits. And the good bits here will not be Mr Rampton or Mr Preston saying McDonald's do not eat babies or whatever, but Ms Steel and Mr Morris saying they do. These are the things that stick and they will not necessarily be dislodged by a courtroom victory expressed as an immensely thick and probably unreadable judgment by Mr Justice Bell.

On top of that, the whole spectacle is inevitably grotesque, a crazy apotheosis of the sledgehammer-nut polarity. Here is this gigantic American corporation and all the pomp, irony and Gothic vaulting of the British legal system bearing down on a couple of grumpy, disaffected anarchists with chips - sorry, french fries - on their shoulders the depth of the Grand Canyon. …