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,"
If McDonald's should somehow lose, its embarrassment would be
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
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
"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
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. …