Originally created 06/19/97

Judgement day in marathon McLibel case



LONDON (AP) - The McVerdict is almost in.

After fighting the longest battle ever waged in an English court, the multibillion-dollar McDonald's Corp. finds out Thursday whether it was able to defeat two vegetarian activists who call the company the epitome of evil multinational capitalism.

The judge, Justice Roger Bell, has spent six months preparing a verdict in the "McLibel" case that court officials say fills three volumes.

After listening to 313 days of testimony and arguments, and reading through 40,000 pages of evidence, Bell's judgment is so bulky that officials say only a summary will be made immediately available for public consumption.

Even the abbreviated version will take about an hour and a half for the judge to explain, court officials said Wednesday.

Legal experts have predicted Bell's decision will be a hollow victory for McDonald's, after the hamburger giant used a high-powered libel team against the defendants, unemployed ex-postman Dave Morris and part-time bar worker Helen Steel, who represented themselves wearing jeans and sweatshirts.

If Morris and Ms. Steel should somehow win, McDonald's would face enormous humiliation after fighting for years in a case estimated to have cost 10 million pounds ($16 million).

Regardless of the judge's ruling, Morris and Ms. Steel claim they are the real victors because they were able to draw much attention to their criticism of the company's business practices.

The battle began years ago, when McDonald's went after activists from the obscure left-wing group London Greenpeace, not related to the well-known Greenpeace International, for handing out anti-McDonald's pamphlets outside the company's fast-food outlets in Britain.

McDonald's says the pamphlets - entitled "What's wrong with McDonald's, Everything they don't want you to know" - are totally false and defamatory.

The leaflet, which Morris and Ms. Steel call "the fact sheet," accuses McDonald's of paying low wages, fighting union organization, abusing workers and animals, serving beef raised on former rainforest land, promoting an unhealthy diet and targeting children through seductive advertising campaigns that feature the clown Ronald McDonald.

Although the activists likely would have gained little attention with the original leaflets, the case has attracted widespread media attention, including a global anti-McDonald's Internet site, numerous news articles and broadcast reports, a book and a recent British television miniseries.

McDonald's said it was only seeking to protect its reputation, but the activists say their supporters will keep on handing out tens of thousands of the anti-McDonald's leaflets no matter which way the judge rules.