Roddick libel claim lands a body blow: Channel 4 sought to depict a 'cynical mask'. Anita and Gordon Roddick said its programme was a smear. Marianne Macdonald reports

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IT MAY have been the holier-than- thou image of the Body Shop that prompted the makers of Dispatches to attack an empire which had long prided itself on helping the homeless, the environment, the community and the Third World. It may have been the additional fact of its healthy profits. Either way, the onslaught proved disastrous.

'Tonight's Dispatch examines the Body Shop phenomenon, with its founders Anita and Gordon Roddick. Does their claim to be different really stand up to a full body search?' the 45-minute programme on Channel 4 demanded in May last year. The makers saw it as puncturing a cynical mask to reveal greed and hypocrisy beneath. The Body Shop saw it as a degrading and inaccurate smear and, for the first time in its 17 years, sued for libel.

For Anita Roddick, the case was crucial. She and her husband had built their pounds 365m empire on 'conviction merchandising'. Vociferous campaigns helped pull in customers by persuading them they were not just being frivolous when they bought dewberry body lotion, but somehow helping the planet.

The windows of its 950 stores world-wide displayed slogans for human rights and international issues. From the start its cosmetics - such as banana hair putty, orchid oil cleansing milk and Viennese facial chalk - were sold in unadorned, refillable bottles which conserved resources and cut waste. Staff were encouraged to participate in community projects. Annual reports announced the company had sent more than 60 volunteers to Romania and recycled vast quantities of consumer waste.

Anita and Gordon Roddick said they fought Channel 4 because the programme had cynically challenged their sincere belief that business could be altruistic. Expecting a balanced picture, the Body Shop gave Fulcrum Productions, the film makers, full co-operation. Mr Roddick told the High Court: 'It gave the impression we were dishonest, deceitful in everything we did.'

The programme was repeated three days later. As a result of hostile reaction, profits fell by 4 per cent, the jury was told.

The libels in the programme centred around claims that the Body Shop pledge not to use ingredients until five years after they had been animal-tested was largely worthless, partly because many new ingredients took that long to gain approval for use. The makers also alleged they were misleading customers by labelling products 'Not tested on animals' and 'Against animal testing'.

The programme claimed other companies, such as Boots and Sainsbury, adopted more stringent criteria preferred by the RSPCA under which they refused to use ingredients which had been animal-tested after a fixed date. These chains' products, it said, were substantially cheaper than the Body Shop's.

It also falsely claimed the company had launched a petition opposing an EC directive on product-testing on animals in a bid to prop up its share price even though the directive had already been withdrawn. Further, that the Body Shop had broken promises made when it opened a soap factory in Easterhouse, Glasgow, that a quarter of the profits would go to the local community.

The Body Shop rebutted the allegations. Charles Gray QC argued few customers beyond the 'odd 14- or 15- year-old girl' could be misled by explanations of its animal testing policies in its leaflets; that the 'five-year rule' was supported by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, and strictly applied; that even the House of Lords had been unaware of the abandonment of the EC directive. As for the Easterhouse claims, the company had donated pounds 50,000 to the area despite the factory making losses of around pounds 130,000 in 1990 and 1991.

Summing up, Mr Justice Jowitt asked the jury to consider 'whether a businessman may undertake good works out of sheer altruism while at the same time recognising - and this may be part of his motive - that good works are good for business'.

Cynical commercialism or a true ideology? Or could the two go hand in hand? The jury thought so and, for Channel 4 and Fulcrum Productions, their body search had proved more like a body blow.

(Photograph omitted)