Small Fries with a Big Beef: Two Britons vs. McDonald's the Fast-Food Chain Won a Libel Suit Last Week, but at What Cost? Series: David Morris and Helen Steel Distribute Leaflets outside a McDonald's Restaurant in London Saturday. the Pair Plan to Continue a Legal Battle against the Chain, Which Has Sued Them for Libel. PHIL HARRIS/AP
Alexander MacLeod, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
McDonald's is claiming victory after the longest court battle in British legal history.
But the two environmental activists who resisted the fast-food giant's bid to sue them for libel say the case is not over yet. They plan to take it to the European Court of Human Rights in Luxembourg.
Meanwhile much legal, business, and media opinion says Big Mac's three-year libel action - which cost it an estimated 10 million ($16.5 million) - has backfired, damaging the company's image. Vegans David Morris, an unemployed postman, and Helen Steel, a hotel worker, were fined a total of 60 thousand for libeling McDonald's on several counts. But on three key issues, including cruelty to animals on the part of McDonald's, the court found in their favor. That is fueling the pair's determination to continue their struggle. "We have nothing to lose and everything to gain," Mr. Morris said after the verdict. "Let's see what Big Mac has to say to the judges in Luxembourg." Paul Preston, president of McDonald's UK, said last Thursday he was "broadly satisfied" with the judgment. "It represents a thorough audit of our business. We believe that our employees and customers will be reassured." But Stephen Brocklebank-Fowler, head of Citygate Corporate public relations, says McDonald's "scored one of the most extended own-goals in the recent history of public relations," using a soccer metaphor for scoring a point for the other side. Sarah Webb, a leading libel lawyer, says the damages McDonald's has been awarded "must be considered small, and the parts of the case the company has lost have to be seen as harmful to its image and reputation." Stefano Hatfield, editor of the British advertising journal Campaign, says McDonald's "paid a high price," because pursuing libel cases in Britain is "a risky business." The Times of London called the outcome "a Pyrrhic victory" for McDonald's, and the Daily Telegraph described it as a win "without relish." What the media dubbed the "McLibel" case began in 1994. McDonald's accused the couple, whose combined annual income is 7 thousand, of distributing a pamphlet containing lies and slurs about the company and its products. The pamphlet said the company was responsible for (among other alleged sins) serving unhealthy food, causing starvation in the third world, and destroying Latin American rain forests. McDonald's waited nearly five years after the pamphlet was published before serving writs on Morris and Ms. …