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Sunday, 9 October 2011

Sally Morgan is bringing a libel action

Sally Morgan, the stage "psychic", is bringing a libel claim.

This was announced on Friday by Atkins Thomson, a London law firm experienced in media law matters. Given this experience, one must presume that her decision to bring a claim has not been made lightly, and that she is fully aware the reputational damage that can result from a misconceived libel claim.


The lawyers' statement is not very informative:

"Sally Morgan instructs Atkins Thomson to commence libel action in relation [to] various articles in the press."


Indeed, so vague is this statement one would perhaps need their client's uncanny abilities to know what it actually means.

First of all, it does not say that any claim has actually been issued. It does not even say that any formal "letters before action" have been sent. We could even still be at preliminary stage, without there having been any correspondence yet at all.

Second, it does not say who the defendants will be. Will Morgan be suing just one media organization? Or many? Will she even adopt the illiberal tactic of threatening the individual journalists? (This was the approach followed by the now discredited British Chiropractic Association in their claim against Simon Singh.)

And, third, it does not state what the supposed libels are. Morgan makes considerable amounts of money out of her audiences believing that she talks with dead people. However, it cannot be defamatory to say that Morgan does no such thing.

Accordingly, any supposed libel is likely to be in regard of how she gives the impression to how she converses with spirits. Is she merely deluded? Does she have the means in place to mislead her audiences? And if she is misleading her audiences, is she doing so with any wrongful - or even dishonest - motive?


The current state of English libel law is that all Morgan has to do to bring a claim is to show a defamatory statement was published by a defendant in England and Wales. She will not have to prove any loss or damage, and she does not even have to show that statements are false (if statements of fact) or malicious (if expressions of opinion).

Once the claim is made, the burden shifts to the defendant, often with terrifying costs implications. It is for the defendant to prove that any factual statements are true (for example, that Morgan does not have any real psychic ability and uses wrongful practices to give that impression) rather than for the claimant to prove the converse (for example, that she really does talk with dead people and that she does not use any wrongful practices to give this impression). As for expressions of opinion, it is for the defendant to show that they are fair and honest, based on the material available.

In a libel case such as one which Morgan may bring (though it must be emphasised we do not know yet what libel claim she is threatening), a possible scenario is that the defendants may have to prove to the court she is not a psychic and that she does use wrongful practices, rather than that Morgan proving that she is a psychic and that she does nothing dubious at all.

That said, of course, the spectacle of any "psychic" being cross-examined at the High Court by any competent barrister - let alone the forensic savages of the specialist libel bar - would be something not to be missed.


So all we know so far is that Sally Morgan is threatening a libel claim; that much is certain, and - not being mind-readers - we must be careful about what at this stage we do not know.

But this does rather promise to be an interesting one.


UPDATE

There is a statement on Morgan's official Facebook page:

"On behalf of Sally Morgan we would like to confirm that Sally Morgan has instructed Graham Atkins of Atkins Thomson to commence libel action in relation to press allegations that she is a cheat, following her show in Dublin. Thank you for your support and patience in this matter. Sally Morgan Management Team."


+++ I have now posted a further update on this case here.+++



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15 comments:

Stan said...

So there are known unknowables and unknown unknowables. Or is it unknowable unknowns?

MWStory said...

The psychic angle is the one that has every one excited, but there's another aspect to Sally Morgan's brand: her being psychic "to the stars".

Every article about her is accompanied by references to her celebrity clients: Princess Diana (pre and post mortem), George Michael and Uma Thurman are mentioned a lot. In her TV show she claims the Robert Dinero and Art Garfunkel both asked her for readings.

I have never come across any statement from anyone close to the late Princess Diana, or indeed from any of her supposed celebrity clients, that verifies that they even know who she is.

I wonder if the extra attention she is bringing on herself might lead to some questions about her non paranormal claims too?

Rob Spence said...

Commenters on this YouTube video suggest she is seen removing an earpiece at the end of a performance. Perhaps she should sue them?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AX5imTBK-OY

Gary the ghoul said...

Sally just buzzed the hotline up here in heaven. She's really angry. I wouldn't start on her or she'll get her mates to haunt you.

Anonymous said...

If the defendant turns out to be an individual of meagre means, I think the internet owes it to that person to provide the money to fight it. Would be worth the time in court.

Anonymous said...

If the defendant turns out to be an individual of meagre means, I think the internet owes it to that person to provide the money to fight it. Would be worth the time in court.

Guglielmo Marconi said...

It should be a straightforward matter for a technically-competent person either to buy a ticket, or to sit outside the venue in a car, and eavesdrop on and record any traffic on a radio link to an earpiece, as was alleged to be used at Dublin. Morgan is appearing just up the road from me at Worthing and I or a colleague will be sat nearby looking for unusual radio traffic.

Carrefax said...

A possible target may well be The Telegraph. Without wishing to republish a potentially defamatory statement here (or anywhere else), I'd imagine that the defamatory sting Morgan will contend for will be, inter alia, that she exploits the vulnerable for financial gain, which as you quite rightly point out, may involve a potential defendant demonstrating on the balance of probabilities that Morgan has no psychic ability.

A tricky one...

Christine Burns said...

What next? Evangelical Christians suing Humanists?

It's a bit tricky proving to a judicial standard that God DOESN'T exist.

Ergo, in the absence of finding stage devices for deliberate deception, such as wires/radio links, smoke or mirrors it may be equally tricky to show that the SM doesn't actually converse with spirits (or genuinely believes she does).

Do the spirits have to be shown to NOT exist? Or is it sufficient to establish SM behaves in a way that indicates she doesn't rely (in good faith) on any such communication for the purposes of her act?

Consider, for instance, the scenario that spirits don't exist, but SM believes faithfully that they do.

These_Boots said...

I thought that all such shows now had to be advertised as "for entertainment purposes only"?

I'm also currently pondering whether Sally is a real (!) life equivalent to a literary antithesis to Cassandra...

vjohn82 said...

Funny people should mention Christians suing Humanists... because that's the libel case I am fighting right now.

As Jacks says, it will be interesting to see this so called psychic under cross examination in the witness box.

I suspect the James Randi foundation might like to get involved and perhaps support any defendants with limited means to fight a case against her.

How these people are allowed to issue libel proceedings like this is incredible and the state of UK libel laws is something which needs urgent reform considering the burden of proof upon Defendants like myself.

The stress my case is having on me is causing strain on my marriage and affecting my young kids. People like her make a mockery of the system to the detriment of free speech, rational inquiry, irony, humour and human beings in general.

Kate said...

A small comment/question about defamation law generally.

One thing I'm unsure about is the complaint that 'the burden shifts to the defendant' to demonstrate that what they said was true. In some ways that doesn't seem particularly unfair - a sort of legal version of 'evidence or STFU'.

However I also don't understand arguments (by government ministers) that to ask a claimant to show they have suffered damage would be too difficult. I understand there are potential practical problems with this when it's an individual and not a company who's making the claim, but as far as I'm aware, for most slander claims the claimant is required to show damage. Nobody seems to have raised this as a problem. Is this because people are rarely sued for slander so it's easier to ignore it as a bit of an anomaly, or is the argument that requiring a claimant to show damage would be too difficult just a lazy way of defending the imbalance between claimant and defendant?

Penglish said...

Poorly-founded legal actions whose primary purpose appears to be to bully potential critics into silence or insincere apology (to 'chill') should be considered vexatious; and vexatious actions should be a criminal offense, or a tort subject to punitive damages.

Anonymous said...

Would it matter whether the burden of proof fell on defendant or plaintiff, if a party without sufficient funds had access to Legal Aid?

Deetee said...

"In a libel case such as one which Morgan may bring (though it must be emphasised we do not know yet what libel claim she is threatening), a possible scenario is that the defendants may have to prove to the court she is not a psychic and that she does use wrongful practices"

Hooray!
So there would be a chance to set up an objective scientific test of her claims?
Can we get Chris French and James Randi involved?