Oprah faces grilling for panning beef

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Two years ago the queen of television chat, Oprah Winfrey, asked the question: Could British mad-cow disease show up in the US? Little did she know her curiosity would land her in the dock of a courtroom in Amarillo, Texas. But that is where she was yesterday. David Usborne watched her testify.

Buster Bledsoe, the "Stud Host" at the "The Great Steak of Texas", is disappointed. Two weeks after she arrived for an extended stay in Amarillo, Ms Winfrey has still to show up. Apparently she has not been tempted by the restaurant's offer of a free 72oz steak for anyone who can eat it in an hour.

Given her well-publicised triumph over past weight problems, that may not be surprising. But you wonder why her lawyers have not brought her here anyway. This, after all, is the Texas Panhandle, the epicentre of the American cattle industry. And, in regard to beef, Ms Winfrey has a something of a public-relations problem.

Her difficulties, and the reason she has spent the past two weeks in the imposing courthouse, stems from an April 1996 broadcast of the ratings- topping Oprah Winfrey Show. It went out three weeks after the British government made headlines worldwide with the first clear admission of a possible link between beef consumption and the invariably fatal brain disorder Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).

Ms Winfrey cannot have anticipated the consequences of that show, which featured guests debating whether the condition behind the panic in Britain, BSE, risked surfacing in the US. In particular, she might not have invited on the set Howard Lyman, a former rancher turned vegetarian who argued that BSE was likely to show up on this side of the water, if it hadn't already. And most certainly she would not, after Mr Lyman had uttered his most doom-laden words, turned to the studio audience and declared: "It has stopped me cold from eating another burger!"

That remark prompted ranchers across Texas to boast bumper stickers declaring: "The only mad cow in America is Oprah". More importantly, it led a group of farmers to launch a lawsuit against her, her production company and against Mr Lyman.

Curiosity about the case is intense for several reasons. It has put the country's second most successful black entertainer, after Michael Jackson, into the hands of a courtroom jury. Ms Winfrey has also been forced to bring her entire operation down from Chicago to continue taping her show every day from an empty theatre around the corner from the courthouse. And then there is the most unusual nature of the suit itself. It rests on a law recently introduced in this state, as in 13 others, that seeks to protect vegetables and animal products, cows included, from slander or libel. This is the first time the food-disparagement laws have been put to the test anywhere in the country.

The suit is seeking $10.6m (pounds 6.6m) in damages on grounds that instantly after the Ms Winfrey broadcast, watched daily by 20 million US viewers, the price of cattle futures plummeted on the Chicago exchange because the show had fanned fears of latent BSE in US animals, even though no case has been recorded in the US.

Ms Winfrey is reminded of the task that she faces each morning as she walks into the courthouse. The lobby is dominated by a colourful mural depicting what makes this region proud: handsome cowboys astride their horses corralling long-horned steers. But she has her supporters - on her side in the courtroom yesterday was her boyfriend, Steadman Graham, and the poet Maya Angelou.

And Ms Winfrey has not, as it were, been cowed. Instead, she has defended her reaction to Mr Lyman and her programme. "We are a talk show," she told the jury. "We present guests with opposing views. We believe that Mr Lyman believed in what he was saying."

Questions about how the programme was edited, after taping, may have weakened Ms Winfrey's defence. The jury has heard testimony suggesting that remarks countering Mr Lyman's view offered by a beef-industry spokesman, Dr Gary Weber, were unfairly pared down in the editing process. An editing assistant this week said he had been asked by Ms Winfrey to cut out the "boring beef guy".

When it gets the case, perhaps next week, the jury will face complex issues. Does Ms Winfrey, for instance, have a constitutional right to express whatever views she likes on her show? Or should she be mindful of the influence she has on her fans? And if she did err, is it reasonable to punish her for slandering not a person but a foodstuff?