The BBC have today reported that Associated Newspapers has agreed to pay “substantial” damages to alleged psychic Sally Morgan after an article suggested she had “perpetrated a scam” on a theatre audience by using an ear piece that was feeding her information to then relay as though she had picked it up using her alleged abilities. In the article published on the BBC news website 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 … It apologises unreservedly to Mrs Morgan for publishing the allegation. It has agreed to pay her substantial damages, together with her legal costs, and it has also agreed not to repeat the allegation.
This is an interesting, if not widely predicted outcome in this case, but what does it actually mean? I first found out this had taken place today when I saw a rather dramatic tweet from Ben Goldacre that claimed ‘the libel lawyers of the UK have decided in their wisdom that psychic powers are real after all’ and I saw many other angry tweets about how Sally Morgan was an obvious fraud and that it was ridiculous the courts has sided with her. It made me chuckle because most of the people making these statements were self-proclaimed skeptics and rational thinkers who ought to know the importance of evidence and how evidence actually works.
On Monday 12 September 2011 a woman called Sue phoned the Liveline show on RTÉ Radio 1, an Irish radio station claiming that as she sat in the audience at a Sally Morgan show at the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin she had overheard a person in a lighting box feeding information to Sally Morgan who was on stage. She heard a person saying things that she alleged were then repeated on the stage by Sally. The theatre’s manager, Stephen Faloon, claimed that the voice 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. In a statement on her website at the time, Sally ensured her fans that the only device she wore on stage was a Radio Microphone so that the audience could hear her.
Although the use of an earpiece to receive information from backstage has often been used by psychics in the past – most famously by Peter Popoff who was exposed to be using such a method by James Randi (you can watch a video here for more details on this) - there was no physical evidence that this had taken place during the Psychic Sally show in Dublin or elsewhere. This is why, when newspapers printed stories making the allegation of this happening they were in the wrong – even though it appeared that this was what happened, and even though a video emerged some time after the allegations made in September that showed Sally Morgan removing an earpiece after leaving the stage during one of her shows. The footage was from a documentary series called ‘The Psychic Life of Sally Morgan’. A still from the video can be seen below.
It seemed to be pretty damning considering Sally’s previous assurance that she only used a Radio Microphone during her shows. However, in response to this, Sally explained the earpiece was used purely for stage direction and although this is a little odd, (it’s very rare that performers of a stand up show use earpieces for stage direction), it certainly isn’t implausible, and it certainly isn’t evidence that she does cheat through the use of an earpiece. At this stage I had just accepted that this was one of those things we would probably never know the truth about. When I had emailed James Randi to see whether he felt it was worth trying to detect the feed from the alleged earpiece as he had with Popoff, he pointed out that if she had been using an earpiece during the Dublin show as alleged, she certainly wouldn’t be now… oh, and trying to detect such a feed in probably a bit illegal too.
The incident in Dublin brought a lot of skeptical attention to Sally Morgan – on daytime television, on the radio, in the newspapers. It has created a lot of dialogue within non-believer and believer communities alike, it led me to create Project Barnum, and I believe it led the Merseyside Skeptics Society to form their annual Halloween Psychic Challenge with the help of Simon Singh and Professor Chris French, which they extend to Sally Morgan and other psychics each year.
In 2011 when the initial accusations were made after the Psychic Sally show in Dublin, the Merseyside Skeptics Society ran their first Halloween Psychic Challenge and the invitation was extended to Sally Morgan but she declined to take part, and according to this article in The Guardian her lawyer told Simon Singh
You well know that we all have far more important things to do than take part in this or any other ‘test’ at this point. She will not attend at Liverpool or at any other time.
This is an attitude that Sally continues to hold every time it is suggested she allows her alleged abilities to be tested in controlled conditions. Unlike dozens and dozens of self-proclaimed Psychics before her who’ve had the guts to stand by their claims, she refuses to allow her alleged extra sensory abilities to be tested and behaves as though she is above the Burden of Proof that lays with anyone making a claim. She is not above the burden of proof
This is the arrogance of Sally Morgan.
After today’s result in her legal case, who Sally Morgan sued for making allegations about her without the evidence to back them up, her continued refusal to provide evidence to back up her claims to be Psychic is hugely ironic and indicative, I think, of just how seriously we should take Sally Morgan, the self proclaimed psychic. Which is ‘not very’, in case you were wondering.