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Sunday, 9 October 2011

Sally Morgan and libel: what actually happened in Dublin?

Lawyers for "Britain's best-loved psychic" Sally Morgan have announced that she is commencing an action for libel.

That lawyers' statement is rather vague, but her official Facebook page says the following:

"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."


So it appears that it was to do with a stage show at the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin on 11 September 2011.

In particular, it seems to do with allegations made the following day on RTE radio by a caller ("Sue") to a call-in show.

You can hear that phone call here, which is worth listening to in full.

You will also hear another caller supporting Sue's account.


On 20 September 2011, my friend the respected professor of psychology Chris French published an article on this allegation.

(Please note that the headline and strapline to that article were from the Guardian and not from Chris.)

What he said, which has been denied by Morgan, is as follows:

"Let me describe what happened so that you can make up your own mind. On Monday 12 September, a caller named Sue phoned the Liveline show on RTÉ Radio 1, an Irish radio station. Sue said that she had attended Morgan's show the previous night at the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin and had been impressed by the accuracy of the readings she made in the first half of the show.

"But then something odd happened. Sue was sitting in the back row on the fourth level of the theatre and there was a small room behind her ("like a projection room") with a window open. Sue and her companions became aware of a man's voice and "everything that the man was saying, the psychic was saying it 10 seconds later."

"Sue believes, not unreasonably, that the man was feeding information to Sally through an earpiece attached to her microphone. For example, the voice would say something like "David, pain in the back, passed quickly" and a few seconds later Sally would claim to have the spirit of a "David" on stage who – you'll never guess – suffered from back pain and passed quickly.

"A member of staff realised that several people near the back of the theatre were aware of the mystery voice and the window was gently closed. The voice was not heard again.

"Sue speculated, again not unreasonably given the history of psychic frauds, that the man was feeding Sally information that had been gathered by engaging members of the audience in conversation in the foyer before the show began. This is a technique widely used by psychic fraudsters, as audience members will naturally discuss with each other who they are hoping to hear from "on the other side", how their loved one died, and so on.

"Subsequent callers to the radio programme supported Sue's account.

"The theatre's general manager, Stephen Faloon, claimed that the voice heard by the audience was actually the voices of two members of staff working for the theatre, not someone supplying information to Sally. Sally Morgan Enterprises also denied that the medium was being fed information during the show."



Sally Morgan then posted the following official statement:

"I would like to address this morning’s piece by Chris French, which was loosely related to the recent allegations made towards me regarding my show at the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin.

"All my life I have run the gauntlet of cynic and skeptics, many are genuine people that are intrigued or unsure but there are also people that point blank would never allow themselves to understand what I do. Because of the work that I do, I have to live with such accusation of being a “fraud” or a “con artist” on a daily basis, however this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t upset me.

"My live shows are very expressive and for this reason I have always used a head microphone instead of using a hand held microphone. The head-mic runs from my ear, down my back and into a radio pack. The head-mic I use is only for sound to go out to the audience not the other way around, it is impossible for me to hear through this.

"The recent performance at the Grand Canal Theatre, I felt, was a fantastic show, an amazing audience and over 700 people waited behind to meet me at the end. I was completely unaware that two young lads, who are employed by the theatre as technicians had been accused of feeding me information. Apparently, during the second half of the show, a window from the production room was open and audience members with their back to them could hear them talking. An usherette quickly diffused the situation and asked them to close the window, however someone construed that these two people were telling me what to say. I would like to state that I have never met these two boys before in my life and more importantly, they have nothing to do with my show. I have no communication with them and there is no way they would have been able to talk to me while I was on stage.

"I have also been informed of another theory, that staff from the theatre was going around the audience digging for information. To think that everyone at the theatre’s [sic] I perform in is involved in a big conspiracy is ludicrous.

"It is unfortunate that with my work, my accuracy stirs, in some people, the need to prove that it isn’t accurate. People wonder, “where am I getting messages from” and for many they would only ever understand if t could be explained scientifically.

"The work that I do opens up so many possibilities for us, but there are many people that are closed off to these. I completely understand this, everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and idea’s, I myself ask questions about what I do every day.

"I am very aware that the work that I do isn’t for everyone, I don’t try to change opinion or force my ideas on anyone else, although my shows are related to a serious subject matter they are always entertaining for an audience and I always try to ensure that there is plenty of laughter as well as the tears that often come. I totally respect cynics and skeptics, as if we don’t ask questions we don’t get answers. However, I will not stand by and be accused of fraudulent behavior, from inaccurate sources of information.

"I consider this morning’s comparisons to Peter Popoff ridiculous and hurtful, as there are no similarities. Peter claims to be able to “communicate the supernatural good news of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit” but this is not something I profess in anyway.

"I receive hundreds of emails and letters from people who I have helped over the years and their support inspires me to continue what I do. As long as I can bring comfort and people want my help, I will be there for them. I do not force anyone to come to my shows, watch my TV series or buy my books, but if they do and they get some enjoyment, support, happiness or advice which enables them to overcome grief or understand the afterlife, then I shall carry on with the work that I do.



So Morgan's own positive account of what happened at the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin is:

- that it was "a fantastic show, an amazing audience and over 700 people waited behind to meet me at the end"

- that she was completely unaware that two young lads, who are employed by the theatre as technicians, had been accused of feeding her information [note the existence of these two "lads...employed by the theatre as technicians" is asserted as fact, and only their feeding of information is described as an accusation]

- that "[a]pparently, during the second half of the show, a window from the production room was open and audience members with their back to them could hear them talking"

- that "an usherette quickly diffused [sic] the situation"

- that this usherette "asked them to close the window"

- that "someone construed that these two people were telling me what to say"

and (curiously)

- that she would "like to state that I have never met these two boys before in my life and more importantly, they have nothing to do with my show. I have no communication with them and there is no way they would have been able to talk to me while I was on stage".

This positive account - by which I mean it is not a bare rebuttal of what the callers said to RTE radio - is rather detailed, and it is especially emphatic in its final denial. Somehow she knew that it was two lads, what their employment status was, and that she had never met them. One wonders how, in the circumstance, she can be so sure of each of these points. [UPDATE - this now seems to have been based on the Faloon comments, now quoted below.]


Comparing the audio clip of the callers to RTE radio with Morgan's own account is interesting.

There would appear to be a lot at stake in this threatened libel action.

And, if the libel action proceeds, perhaps we will find out what actually did happen last month in Dublin.


UPDATE

I have now seen this posted on the Irish Independent's website dated 13 September 2011:

Stephen Faloon, the theatre's general manager, last night denied anything underhand was going on and said the voice heard by the audience belonged to two 'follow-spot operators' working for the theatre, and not Ms Morgan.

"These two guys, Stuart McKeown and Mick Skelly, are professional light technicians who were working for us, and unfortunately because a window had been left open, were heard talking.

"But as soon an usherette heard them talking, and informed her supervisor, the window closed and the talking stopped.

"It was a slight distraction but that was the chain of events on Sunday night."

The theatre stressed it would "never be a part of any scam", or attempt to "mislead" its audience.



SECOND UPDATE

This is not from the Dublin show, but it is from Sally Morgan's own YouTube channel - and just what is she removing from her ear after 5:40?



And screengrab of that particular moment (hattip @MissOceania):



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32 comments:

hayleyisaghost said...

In her statement Sally says

"The head-mic I use is only for sound to go out to the audience not the other way around, it is impossible for me to hear through this."

She doesn't deny having a seperate earpiece though. She also said if the technicians:

"someone construed that these two people were telling me what to say. I would like to state that I have never met these two boys before in my life and more importantly, they have nothing to do with my show. I have no communication with them and there is no way they would have been able to talk to me while I was on stage".

However, she doesn't state whether a member of her team was communicating with her while on stage, either via an earpiece or visual means.

She has been asked on numerous occasions to clarify these two points but hasn't done so, so far.

vjohn82 said...

I don't think we will find out what really happened in Dublin unless the stage hands are identified and forced into the witness box.

It will also be interesting which articles Sally took exception to and who she is looking to implicate in the proceedings.

Very interesting but how do these types of cases keep being brought?

Tom Morris said...

How would a libel action proceed? Obviously, she could go after Sue, the woman who phoned into the talk show, if she can trace down the person. But what about Chris French and others who reported the story?

Dissemination is libel too, but could there be any defence? Simply reporting that someone who phoned into a talk show believes that Sally Morgan fakes her performances rather than reporting that you necessarily agree with their conclusion? Or perhaps fair comment on the basis that we have pretty damn good reasons to believe psychics are all fraudulent (due to lack of compelling scientific evidence) and the simple deduction that as all psychics are frauds, and Sally Morgan is a psychic, then Sally Morgan is a fraud.

Anyway, what's the actual status of a case Morgan could bring? Please tell me we haven't got another Singh v. BCA on our hands.

Phil said...

You might also be interested in Chris Romer's blog post on the subject:

How Sally Met Infamy: Psychic Sally Morgan Caught: or was she?

johnlinford said...

To follow on from comment #1:

No (standard theatre) system exists that is a combined microphone/headset.

However, systems such as this one are extremely common in theatres and music venues - and can be used with any sort of ear-piece.

Any half-competent sound technician in a theatre would be able to set up such a system in their venue in a very short amount of time (I would expect total setup in an empty room to take 15 minutes, let alone a prepared venue).

I find the claim that "I have no communication with them and there is no way they would have been able to talk to me while I was on stage." highly unlikely, as almost any large venue would have equipment to enable this in-house, or would be able to hire it in from numerous suppliers for less than £30/day - for example from here.

That said, I make no claims to know what equipment the Grand Canal has in its stores, nor what Morgan tours with. All the equipment necessary is however very much "off the shelf".

Steffan said...

The lines:

...'they have nothing to do with my show. I have no communication with them and there is no way they would have been able to talk to me while I was on stage.

are curiously in the present tense, before changing to the past. Surely it's the past that solely concerns us here?

Also,

"I have also been informed of another theory, that staff from the theatre was going around the audience digging for information. To think that everyone at the theatre’s [sic] I perform in is involved in a big conspiracy is ludicrous.'

changes from some (or one, depending on whether the word 'staff' or 'was' is illiterate) to 'everyone', which is surely different.

Perhaps this was deliberately misleading, or perhaps it wasn't.

Simon said...

Am I the only one to find the below quote deeply amusing?

"I consider this morning’s comparisons to Peter Popoff ridiculous and hurtful, as there are no similarities. Peter claims to be able to “communicate the supernatural good news of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit” but this is not something I profess in anyway."

Aneliya said...

I am tempted to think that she is taking action because she knows the outcome.

Jack of Kent said...

I have now added update of something I found in Irish Independent.

Jennie Kermode said...

One would think that it would be a simple matter to obtain Ms Morgan's headset mid-performance to determine how it might be used, and to switch in a headset through which it was definitely impossible to receive instructions, and to observe how her performance proceded from that point.

Tim Trent said...

Ignoring all the points of the case, all of the technology, all of the accusations, isn't it great publicity?

It's a show.

Dave said...

There is video footage of her removing an earpiece, not head mic, from her left ear. Fortunately for Sally, this video footage isn't from the night in question. And maybe this video footage captured the one and only time she used an earpiece. And maybe the earpiece was just for her to listen to horse racing results or music on an iPod. Who knows. But it does show her using an earpiece. Clear as day.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmoGE5kzJLM

Jason said...

I believe her. What's clearly happened is that the gentlemen in the projection room were giving information to dead people, who in turn passed it on to Sally, who repeated it onstage in good faith.

And yes, of course she knew everything about the two lads. She's psychic.

(Warning: this comment may contain traces of irony.)

Jack of Kent said...

Have now added the YouTube clip and screengrab.

Lewis said...

Regarding the second theory she mentions, she's very specific that it would be ludicrous for staff in each theatre to be digging for information for her, which it would. You would have your own staff who would come to gigs to do that, I don't believe she ruled that out.
I'm interested to know the details of the libel case, I'm predicting it will not rest on whether she's psychic or not, but if she wins it will be presented as if that's what the verdict means.

Alice said...

Given the kind of publicity the BCA got after suing Simon, this is going to be interesting. I discovered and started supporting Skeptics in the Pub because of that, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one. I wonder if this will bring in another flood of people and awareness?

rjh01 said...

If you cannot see what Jack is talking about in the YouTube then watch this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmoGE5kzJLM It is a shortened version of what Jack posted with arrows pointing out what is important.

redpola said...

I see nothing in either the official explanation or the the theatre's comments that explain the detailed and specific observation that "everything that the man was saying, the psychic was saying it 10 seconds later.".

It seems an odd thing to get wrong, particularly in a setting where observation of this specific effect is critical to the debunking of the psychic.

Matt said...

I'm aware of two areas of law where the burden of proof is commonly said to be reversed. Here in libel law the initial burden, to prove that a comment is defamatory, is on the claimant. Sally might easily say that people reading such an article might be less likely to buy a ticket if they no longer thought she could genuinely talk to the dead. It is the on the defendent to prove that the comment is a fair opinion or true fact. The other area is the regulations on Unfair Commercial Practices (which amongst other things replaced the Fraudulent Mediums Act) Here the initial burden is for the claimant to demonstrate that they or a typical customer would be likely to make a transactional decision they would not otherwise have made based upon the impression given by the trader. ie. Trading Standards would only need to prove that for example that there are people who go to her show who would not do so if they did not believe that she could talk to the dead. The trader can then be compelled to demonstrate that the impression they've given is accurate. It would be interesting to see these two areas of law intersect.

Dave said...

Just a point of fact - the earpiece could simply be where her stage mic is attached over her ear, rather than an actual earpiece. I am no supporter of psychics as I think they take advantage of vulnerable people even if they can 'hear the dead', but it may be a stretch too far to use the specific Youtube clip as that doesn't completely prove an earpiece is in her ear, it could just be how the face mic is attached.

Anonymous said...

Ask any box office member at any of the 'psychics' gigs and they'll tell you a couple of things.

1. The 'guests' the performer has in the audience are many, they sit by themselves throughout the audience. Unusual in ticketing.

2. The same 'guests' of the performer have tickets for all the nights sitting in different seats yet similarly by themselves.

Of course it could be that these performers are hugely friendly and garner a wide range of cherished friends who like to travel with them, sit by themselves and see the show from different vantage points every night.,
Who could say? Certainly not me.
I especially can't say who does it,although it would be happy coincidence based on the nature of the post wouldn't it. At least 3 who are well known to differing degrees. Some to quite 'take the piss' standards its so blatant.

Ask a box office artist liaison where the artist cobos are. It's always interesting.

Tony Lloyd said...

@Matt

Oooh, now that's an intersting point.

Has Sally, by threatening libel procedings, made the claim that her shows are not "for amusement only"?

I can think of a conjurer getting very annoyed if you revealed how a trick was done but not suing for libel. As we all know it's a trick the question is how we were tricked not whether we were.

Has Sally Morgan broken the Unfair Commercial Practices Act by issuing libel proceedings?

I'm going to find out.

Ian said...

Suppose that the two men in the projection box type room weren't actually speaking into a mike, and were otherwise unconnected with the performance, as Morgan claims. Could they instead have been listening to a feed on a loudspeaker of someone else passing useful 'readings' to Morgan, and its that sound the back row heard?

This would surely add to the value of entertainment for them, just as Formula1 tv coverage often plays the radio link between base and driver.

Belle de Jour said...

Regarding this in Morgan's statement:

"I have also been informed of another theory, that staff from the theatre was going around the audience digging for information. To think that everyone at the theatre’s [sic] I perform in is involved in a big conspiracy is ludicrous.'

Here's a comment left on her website:

"I was at your show in Guildford on monday and although I didnt get a message it was amazing to watch the faces of people who did. I think the work you do is incredible and I hope you carry it on for years to come. I had a lovely chat with your John in the foyer before the show, which was really nice. I cant wait to come and see you again and fingers crossed next time I might be lucky enough to have a message, xx" (emphasis mine)

I wonder who her John is, and how many lovely chats they manage before the show?

Dave Hunt said...

For this to work the theatre management must be in on it since their booth is used. Presuming that Sally uses the same trick at all the theatres around the UK she goes to, then they must all be in on it as well. Some staff must also be aware. The Irish theatre management deny it completely. Be interesting to see if any past theatrical staff break cover and if not, why not.

Tony Lloyd said...

I wrote: "I'm going to find out."

I've just emailed about Sally Morgan to the Office of Fair Trading.

In brief, the opinion ("honest opinion", as opposed to "legal opinion") I put to the OFT was:

1. "Facebook" is part of Sally Morgan's Business Practices designed to (in part) sell tickets to her shows.
2. To say that calling her a "cheat" is defamatory is a claim that she really is communicating with the deceased.
3. That claim needs verification or prosecution.

Lewis said...

That's interesting Belle few jour!
As another angle to the original story consider this scenario. Some audience members overhear some voices through the window, but can't necessarily hear clearly. A staff member hurriedly closes the window embarrassed about the disturbance and the audience members think they're onto something. They then fill in the blanks and convince themselves they had heard lines being fed. Now if it was just idle chit chat, coupled with imaginative memory, then she has testimony to support her, but could still have been getting info elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

@Belle

"I wonder who her John is, and how many lovely chats they manage before the show?"

'John' is Sally's husband. He attends all the shows and mingles and chats the fans before the performance. He is very popular with the Sally fans and has become a bit of a celebrity himself, because of this. Fans can have their photo taken with him, and they often talk about him on both her facebook pages ('Sally Morgan' public figure page and 'Fans of Sally Morgan Star Psychic' page). He also has his own facebook page 'Psychic Sally's Husband'.

Neuroskeptic said...

I like Ian @ 10:21's theory.

The two dudes in the box don't have to be the ones sending the messages, they just have to be hearing them, to explain what happened.

Maybe one was listening to the messages and he was repeating them for the benefit of the other?

Or again, they could have been reading from a script of some kind that had somehow come into their possession.

Or of course it could also be that a) the audience members are lying for some reason and b) psychic powers are real. Yeah. That's got to be it.

strangebrew said...

A woman...'claims' that she converses to DEAD PEOPLE and can pass messages from them on to an obviously gullible audience membership.

Consider that a moment...

This 'apparent' scam has been popular since before Victorian times.
It is basic 'entertainment' in much the same way that Paul Daniels has made his fortune.

Would anyone like to sue a member of the public for concluding that Paul Daniels or David Copperfield or Penn and Teller do not use slight of hand and rather ingenious machinery and props to execute their illusions?

But surely a court any court, that has to consider such libellous claims made about her or her 'modus operandi' must also consider the veracity of her boasted skill in talking to DEAD PEOPLE.

But maybe she is sailing close to the wind here, the claim is that she got information from two mouthy technicians employed by the theatre, if that is not the case and the actual presumed method is not actually identified..and certainly any rational mind would not dispute the point that real time information is gathered by an all to alive human method, what is the legal ramification...is it a slam dunk for her?


These 'artists' are not necessarily stupid, maybe dishonest, but not barking, she knows what she is doing methinks!
The law would operate in narrow confines and in this case focus on the allegations made in a radio studio, the real method of how she gets information might not enter into cogitation.

But in the 21st century maybe the law should look at the 'spirit' and not the letter of itself.

Matt said...

Thanks for doing the legwork Tony, I was planning on waiting to see the actual complaint before considering whether to do much the same thing.

Using your analogy of a magician, imagine you worked hard to produce an illusion. You designed it, constructed props ran through the stagecraft over and over, recording the performance from around the auditorium so you could view the sleights misdirections and concealments from every possible angle. You trained your muscles until you were confident that your contortions felt and seemed natural whilst at the same time knowing that every line of sight was covered. Then after your performance a critic declared that the reason nobody in the live audience detected your deception was not this hard work but instead that they were all stooges. I think you'd have a libel case. Though brinigng it to court could well do much to expose your actual method.

It may be that whatever Sally's methods are, whether they are some uncanny power to speak to the dead or other means of obtaining a similar looking result, they don't include people in a projection box feeding her lines.

In which case she may have a claim even without having to demonstrate genuine clairvoyance (e.g. under controlled conditions). Maybe all she has to demonstrate is that she can produce similar effects to her stage show without using an earpiece. This is eminently doable.

Samphire said...

It may be that whatever Sally's methods are, whether they are some uncanny power to speak to the dead or other means of obtaining a similar looking result, they don't include people in a projection box feeding her lines.

Speaking to the dead requires no uncanny powers. I do it all the time. The trick is in getting them to speak back and I can boastfully claim that my success in this regard is exactly the same as I believe Sally's to be -1 less than 100%.