McLibel Two hope to taste victory as whopper trial comes to an end

Judge will take an hour to read out summary of 1,000-page findings
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The Independent Online
The fabled McLibel trial, the longest of any kind in English legal history and three times as long as any English libel case, is finally reaching a conclusion. It will take Mr Justice Bell an hour simply to read out a summary of his 1,000-page judgment later this week.

In fact, and unbeknown to most, this mammoth 313-day trial has not been one libel action but two. In what could turn out to be a neat legal move, the doughty Dave Morris and Helen Steel, veterans of the struggles over the miners' strike, Wapping and the poll tax, counterclaimed for libel against the mighty McDonald's Corporation.

The McDonald's writs were issued in 1990, several years after a little- circulated What's Wrong With McDonald's leaflet issued by London Greenpeace (no relation to the worldwide Greenpeace environmental organisation) first appeared.

The leaflet contained a series of allegations about the "junk" nature of McDonald's products and its alleged exploitation of resources, workers and animals. As the trial loomed amid a mountain of paperwork and after 28 pre-trial hearings, McDonald's issued 300,000 leaflets and press releases attacking the leaflet as lies. The lines for the battle of the leaflets were drawn.

"The hypocrisy of it," says an affronted Mr Morris, 43, who admits to trying McDonald's milk shakes about 15 years ago until he learnt the amount of sugar they contained.

Ms Steel, 31, and Mr Morris became defendants in person, without legal aid and unjustly, they say, deprived of a jury. But as they set about calling a succession of witnesses - including a string of nutritional experts and one of a number of private investigators hired by McDonald's to infiltrate London Greenpeace - and conducting detailed cross- examinations of the corporation's big guns, it became increasingly clear that this was not to be the trial lasting a few weeks that the corporation had been banking on.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of all, however, is the experience of another campaigning group, the Nottingham-based Veggies. Veggies became the main distributors of the leaflet. After a legal complaint from McDonald's the group made some slight amendments but was then free to continue distribution - more than 2 million in all.

Ms Steel, whose name aptly matches the force of her opinions, says: "London Greenpeace was the start of a worldwide campaign. They thought that by attacking people involved with London Greenpeace over all the issues in the fact-sheet, they would get an apology and then effectively the campaign would be stopped."

Things have only got worse for the ultra image-conscious company, despite the fact that it could easily afford the millions of dollars it has spent on the litigation. McInformation Network, an international network of volunteers, claims its McSpotlight Internet site, containing 19,000 pages of official court transcript, has been accessed nearly 9 million times.

As "ordinary" people living near the poverty line (separately - they have never been an "item") learning about the finer, and often crucial, points of legal procedure and pitted against McDonald's silver-tongued QC, Richard Rampton, Ms Steel and Mr Morris supported each other in times of crisis and exhaustion.

But in truth they were never that ordinary. Mr Morris, who had to juggle the demands of the case with caring for his eight-year-old son, Charlie, says: "We are both experienced campaigners. We know when people are determined to fight they can square up to the most unfavourable odds."

Of the list of offensive characteristics of McDonald's - and, as Ms Steel points out, all the other burger chains - the billions spent on promoting high-fat, low-fibre food was one of the worst in the eyes of the McLibel Two.

But there is a wider aspect. "McDonald's are symbolic of the way the current economic situation is going globally - their whole approach to food, employment, packaging. To me they are a company that has to be challenged if people are going to challenge the domination of our lives by multinational corporations," she says.

But Britain's libel laws mean that opposing the multinational giants is a perilous task. Ms Steel invokes a House of Lords ruling that laid down that councils could not sue for libel because of the "chilling" effect on freedom of speech. "Multinational companies have as much if not more influence in society today as governmental bodies and are far less accountable."

If they lose the case they plan to argue before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that a multinational should not have the power to sue unless it can show that the defendant knew he was publishing fabricated information.

Mr Morris says: "I think that libel laws are being used as a form of mass censorship in this country. Mass because every paper, every film, is subject to libel checks by lawyers who are not even checking any more to see if something is accurate or defensible, but whether it may lead to a writ. And it's in secret because the public don't know what's going on. So it's mass, secret, censorship."