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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?

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.

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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."

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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. Steel, insisting that if they did not do so the company's reputation would suffer.

It failed to reckon on the fact that in Britain libel cases can take a long time. It also appeared to assume that Morris and Steel would not offer a defense.

With no money to pay lawyers, Morris and Steel decided to bone up on libel law and defend themselves. They received donations from well-wishers for photocopying, and some lawyers gave them free advice from the sidelines, but they shared all the cross-examining between them.

This helped set the scene for what much of the media portrayed as a David and Goliath struggle, as the two defendants took the field against McDonald's battery of highly paid counselors.

After 28 pretrial hearings, one reference to the House of Lords, and a 313-day trial stretching over nearly three years, a High Court judge found that most of the pamphlet's allegations were untrue, but that three were justified.

Claims that McDonald's paid low wages to its workers, exploited children in advertising and marketing, and was guilty of cruelty in the rearing and slaughtering of animals were correct, the judge said.

The trial also revealed that the starting pay for a McDonald's counter worker in Britain was nearly $1 per hour less than the minimum amount trade unions are pushing for the government to set.

The judge found that McDonald's made "considerable use of susceptible young children to bring in customers."

On treatment of livestock, he said the company was "culpably responsible for cruel practices in the rearing and slaughter of some of the animals used to produce its food."

The judge said an allegation that McDonald's hamburgers cause cancer had no foundation.

McDonald's has 760 outlets in Britain, visited by 10 million people each week and employing 40,000 people.

One irony of the case is that the original crudely printed pamphlet was distributed to only a few hundred people. More than 2 million update leaflets have been circulated since the trial began.

A Web site called McSpotlight has carried the entire proceedings on the Internet and has been accessed 13 million times.

If Morris and Steel take their fight to the European Court, it will probably mean the case will remain in the eye of the international public into the 21st century. Cases before the European Court seldom take less than three years and often last a lot longer.

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