Jun 20 2013

Sally Morgan Libel Suit

This is an interesting story with an unfortunate update.

UK self-proclaimed psychic, Sally Morgan, sued the Daily Mail for libel because they claimed that she used deliberate fraud during some of her performances by receiving messages through an earpiece (Popoff style). The case was recently settled, with Morgan receiving £125,000 to cover damages and legal fees. In a statement the paper said:

Brid Jordan, for Associated Newspapers, told the judge: “The Daily Mail withdraws the suggestion that Mrs Morgan used a secret earpiece at her Dublin show in September 2011 to receive messages from off-stage, thereby cheating her audience, which it accepts is untrue.”

The story may therefore be a cautionary tale for skeptics – don’t overstate criticism or state as factual speculation about motivation or fraud. This is challenging when also wanting to engage in critical analysis of dubious claims without pulling any punches – but that is the line we have to walk.

The backstory here is interesting. The claims of fraud stem partly from a specific show in Dublin in 2011. Sally Morgan is one of the more famous self-professed psychics in the UK (she is less-well known in the US, and is perhaps analogous in fame to Sylvia Browne). She makes a comfortable living doing live shows where she claims to contact the spirit of the dead, selling books and DVDs, and in her TV appearances.

After a typical stage show in Dublin one attendee named Sue claimed on a radio show that she was sitting in the back of the theater and could hear voices coming from a little control room. She claims that the voices in the control room were being repeated 10 seconds later on stage by Morgan – as if they were feeding her information that she was then dispensing as if it were from the spirits.

The Daily Mail was not the only paper to report on this. Psychologist and skeptic Chris French, writing for the Guardian, reported the story as well. He explained that many alleged psychics use cold reading techniques, some unwittingly, to give the appearance of having specific knowledge about their subjects. A subset, however, cheat by using hot reading techniques, including having accomplices chat up the audience before the show fishing for information, or have audience members fill our cards with information (prayer cards, or sign up cards). This information is then somehow fed to the performer on stage.

Sue’s testimony certainly makes it seem as if Morgan was using a hot reading technique. Morgan, of course, denies the allegation, and that was the basis of her libel suit. Others have supported Sue’s testimony, however. There is also video evidence showing Morgan removing what appears to be an earpiece following a performance.

A skeptic might also wonder why Morgan (much like Browne) has refused to participate in a simple test of the powers she claims to demonstrate reliably on stage night after night. Chris French, Simon Singh and the Merseyside skeptics have offered to test Morgan (which would qualify her for the JREF million dollar challenge) in what sounds like a very reasonable protocol. Morgan claims to read pictures on stage, using them to contact the deceased and be told all sorts of information by them. The test that French and colleagues have in mind is simply to give her 10 pictures and 10 names, and she has to match the names to the pictures. If she gets 7/10 then that will be considered a success. Sound pretty simple for someone who claims to divine detailed knowledge of a person from their picture.

Simon Singh, also reporting in the Guardian, tells another curious story about Morgan. Magician Drew McAdam (who unfortunately passed away this year) thought Morgan might be using magician techniques to pull off her performances, so he laid a trap for her. He planted information about a fictional character, Toby Wren from a 1970 BBC drama, Doomwatch, by submitting it to Morgans website and placing letters in the box in the foyer before the show. His wife had a picture of Toby Wren and claimed, in the planted information, that she was in love with him, and that he died in an explosion. Sure enough, Morgan was “told by the spirits” of Toby’s untimely explosive death.

At this point I am not sure why the Daily Mail libel suit turned out the way it did. Perhaps the Daily Mail was not careful in its statements. Perhaps they were just cutting their losses, the libel laws being what they are in England. I am still waiting for the full story to come out (if it will).

It is unfortunately,  however, that a dubious alleged psychic such as Morgan was handed this victory, which she will likely exploit to further her career.

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