A Pyrrhic Mcvictory: McDonald's Wins a Libel Case - or Does It?

Article excerpt

It should have been no contest. On one side of the court: a $32 billion-a-year corporation and a squad of London's priciest lawyers. On the other: a pair of out-of-work anarchists with no money for legal help. The libel action brought by McDonald's against a pair of deep-dyed green critics was slated to run for just 12 weeks. But someone had miscalculated. Badly. The defendants in the "McLibel Case," backed by many environmentalists, animal-rights activists and vegetarians in a campaign waged partly on the Internet, weren't giving up. Before judgment was finally delivered last week the trial had become the longest in English history, running for 313 days stretched over three years. Some 130 witnesses had taken the stand, the transcript ran 20,000 pages and McDonald's bill had reached an estimated $16 million. Worse, the company won only a points victory--and took a PR battering.

Sure, McDonald's is owed damages--in theory. Defendants Dave Morris and Helen Steel, who distributed a leaflet with a slew of charges against McDonald's, were ordered to pay $98,000, though it's unclear whether the company will try to collect. The judge ruled that the company wasn't--as alleged--to blame for starvation in the Third World, the destruction of the Central American rain forest or serving up unhealthy food that might cause fatal disease. Nor had it lied about its use of recycled paper. On the other hand, it was responsible for mistreating animals, paying low wages and exploiting children through its ads. If that hurt, think of the publicity. The trial was already the subject of a book, TV documentaries and innumerable press and radio reports worldwide. A common theme: the family-friendly multinational that squashes free speech. "McDonald's may have won the battle, but they lost the war," says London PR-company boss Quentin Bell. …