In the 'McLibel' litigaiton, everybody was an absurd loser On Books

June 14, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

In the late 1980s, a tiny, fringe activist group in London publicly sought to tell the world what it contended was "the truth about McDonald's," the world's largest fast-food chain. In 1990, the company, which is headquartered in Illinois, filed "writs" - British civil usage that in America would be called libel suits - against two members of that group.

The core of the case: David Morris and Helen Marie Steel were members of London Greenpeace (unrelated to the larger European organization), which had collectively written, designed and then passed out on the streets around McDonald's shops in Britain a "Factsheet."

That four-page document was intensely critical and satirical. It // alleged, among other things, that McDonalds's was seriously offensive in matters of workers' and other human rights, diet and disease, food safety, animal welfare, rain forest destruction, environmental damage and the manipulation of small children through advertising techniques.

How McDonald's narrowed its suit on Steel and Morris was so involved as to fill this page. Neither had or have any appreciable net worth, and were earning no more than $12,000 a year between them. They defended themselves without lawyers. Throughout, McDonald's purportedly was spending approximately $10,000 a day in outside counsel, beyond very substantial support from lawyers and others inside its international corporate payrolls.

The case was heard, without jury, by High Court Judge Sir Roger Bell, who had been generally regarded as intelligent, well-trained and fair-minded. The trial became the longest litigation of any kind in English judicial history: It began on June 28, 1994, and closed on Dec. 13, 1996. There were 313 court days spread over two and a half years, yielding 40,000 pages of documents and depositions, and 18,000 pages of court transcripts.

Everybody's wrong

At the end, on June 11, 1997, the judge granted McDonald's much of what it had asked. In a 45-page summary of his 800-page judgment, he penalized Steel and Morris $96,000 for libels. In dismissing some of the counts, however, he held McDonald's responsible for "exploiting children," "cruelty to animals," for paying "low wages" and for misleading customers about the nutritional values of their foods.

Steel and Morris had declared often they could and would not pay any damages or assessments. Ultimately, McDonald's let pass the deadline by which they could have pursued further action.

Now there is arriving in America a book that lays out this entire self-ridiculing burlesque. First published a year ago in Britain, it is "McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial," by John Vidal (New Press, 354 pages, $24).

Vidal sympathetically outlines the lives of Morris, a self-declared "anarchist" and sometime postman who turned down going to university, and Steel, a radical vegetarian who also has had little education and an early-starting life of protest. Both were and are virtually full-time agitators for an apparently infinite variety of righteous - if often very marginal - causes.

Vidal, himself outspokenly of the political and economic left, makes no pretense of evenhandedness, though the reporting of the case is straightforward. He stumbles badly when, late in the book, he seeks to draw McDonald's ostensible abuses as symptoms of a world of decaying values and growing crass corporatism - equating it with the horrors of blood-bath prone Nigeria and roughly every other troubled spot, nation and institution on earth. That argument becomes a rant of trivial, strained reasoning.

Nonetheless, Vidal's book makes a powerful, convincing case that the entire matter, from McDonald's decision to the handling of the case in court, was an obscene demonstration of the too frequent truth, as Mr. Bumble insisted in "Oliver Twist," that "the law is a ass, a idiot."

Otherwise, the case never should have been filed. It never should have been allowed to go to trial. If it had, it should have taken a brief few days of hearing, at most.

Vast popularity

What was gained? One of a hundred examples of the ridiculousness of the McDonald's action was that the leaflets that had spurred it to file the suit became vastly popular as a result of the case. Vidal estimates 2 million were subsequently passed out in Britain, and with sympathetic "McLibel" demonstrations in 25 other countries, certainly millions were distributed elsewhere. The web site of the Steel and Morris supporters (www.mcspotlight.org) has been visited more than 15 million times.

For much of 1991, I served as executive editor of the Sunday Correspondent, a now defunct British national newspaper. Immediately, I was appalled and frustrated by the extent to which freedom of expression and publication and access to information are officially controlled in Great Britain. More maddening, in that mother of parliamentary democracies, was the truth that my British colleagues accepted those limitations with hardly a wail.

The deadening hand of libel laws in Britain is more restricting, far more favorable to plaintiffs, than in the United States, where, God knows, it is often a cripplingly repressive expense in time and costs.

But the "McLibel" case goes far beyond libel law.

Except for gut racism and incompetence in dealing with the hard-core unemployed, I know of no more pernicious phenomenon damaging America's social and economic health than excessive tort litigation. In the last generation, the explosion of lawyers and law suits in the United States has made forest fires seem like gentle, nurturing warmth. The resulting - or enabling - explosion of civil law suits has mortally sucked assets and vitality from millions of innocent citizens and thousands of generally well-intentioned corporations.

"McLibel" strongly suggests the phenomenon has become a significant American export.

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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