`McLibel' Case Victory Will Come with a High Price

Article excerpt

LONDON -- McDonald's Corp. may be on the verge of victory in the longest trial ever heard by an English court -- but at what a cost.

After three years, much adverse publicity and a legal bill worth millions of Big Macs, the global hamburger giant is about to get a verdict in its libel case against two obscure vegetarian activists, Dave Morris and Helen Steel.

Legal experts predict a judgment largely in favor of McDonald's, which accuses Morris, an unemployed former postman, and Steel, a part-time bar worker, of defaming it with pamphlets that attack the company's business practices. But any victory by McDonald's could ring hollow. The marathon case dubbed "McLibel" has turned Morris, 43, and Steel, 31, into fringe heroes of the political left, standing up against what they call the oppressive evils of multinational capitalism. Morris and Steel have been showered by international attention -- through newspapers, a book, a British television miniseries and an Internet Web site -- that they couldn't have dreamed of had McDonald's left them alone. "We believe we've already won, because McDonald's brought this case to silence their critics and it's had the opposite effect," Morris said. If McDonald's should somehow lose, its embarrassment would be enormous. At issue is an old pamphlet, distributed by campaigners for years outside British McDonald's outlets, entitled "What's wrong with McDonald's? Everything they don't want you to know." The pamphlet shows a Ronald McDonald mask covering the face of a grubby capitalist. It accuses McDonald's of promoting an unhealthy diet full of fat and too much salt, treating workers and animals poorly, using beef from former rainforest lands and luring children into its stores with a seductive ad campaign. All false and defamatory, McDonald's claimed. It says it has spent so much money -- the company won't confirm reports that the case cost it $16 million -- and time because its reputation is worth it. McDonald's says it is confident winning when the judge, Justice Roger Bell, delivers his verdict by the end of this week. McDonald's, with revenues that came to $10.7 billion last year, can certainly afford the legal tab. But many observers question the company's wisdom. "It was, as it turned out, very crazy for them to bring the action," said Eric Barendt, a professor of media law at University College in London. "They have spent lots of money that they can't recover," Barendt said. "They have had a lot of bad publicity and they appear oppressive." Any victory by McDonald's will be tainted by public perceptions that the trial was a mismatch. McDonald's hired prominent London libel lawyer Richard Rampton to take on the two defendants who showed up in shirt sleeves, often appearing awkward and bewildered by trial procedures as they represented themselves throughout a record 313 days in court. …