On June 20th, 2013, it was reported that British psychic Sally Morgan and the Daily Mail had come to a settlement agreement over charges that the Daily Mail had committed libel against Sally Morgan. After a September 2011 performance, attendees to her show went on to tell a radio show that they saw evidence that Morgan was being fed information via a secret ear piece. This was repeated in a few articles, but it seems only one article was actually involved in the lawsuit.
As read in court, Sally Morgan specifically mentions an article written by Paul Zenon that Morgan says contains an allegation that she cheated the audience. Her lawyer claimed even more:
“It was following a theatre performance in September 2011 in Dublin that an article appeared in the Daily Mail which, in the context of a general attack on psychics as being charlatans, accused Mrs Morgan specifically of having used a hidden earpiece during her performance in order to receive instructions from her team which she then repeated on stage as if she had received them from the spirit world.”
The reaction from skeptics seems to have been contempt for the decision:
— ben goldacre (@bengoldacre) June 20, 2013
Or disappointment in the skeptic:
I do hate to see Sally Morgan win, but this is why people should stop waving terms like 'fraud' or 'scam' around so carelessly.
— Martin Robbins (@mjrobbins) June 20, 2013
There have even been a few articles written here and there, outlining why this might have been a skeptic fail. However, everyone seems to be quoting second hand sources, as the original article is no longer on the Daily Mail website No one linked to the original, because they couldn’t. Most of the words like “fraud”, “scam” or “charlatan” do not come from original sources, they come from Sally Morgan’s lawyer.
I did some digging, though, and was able to finally track down the original article. When you the read original, well, it’s a lot less controversial. You can read the original here but I’ll bring in some of the critical passages.
First, Zenon does repeat the claims of others that they heard the use of a hidden ear piece to facilitate the performance:
A member of the audience claims otherwise, saying that she could hear a man’s voice relaying information, presumably via a microphone and hidden earpiece — such as ‘David, pain in back, passed quickly’ — to the psychic superstar on stage who, 10 seconds later, claimed to be talking to the spirit of David. The voice only stopped when it was heard by a theatre usher, who closed an internal window.
This is not a claim made by Paul Zenon. This is background information on the what’s been being said about a 2011 Sally Morgan performance. The people who made the allegation on the radio, were not sued, I’ll point out.
Next, we get a little bit of where Zenon is coming from:
So was Ms Morgan getting a little help from the real world rather than the spirit world? While she insists absolutely not — although it is still illegal in this country to claim to be a medium — having studied stage psychics for years and been one myself in my 20s, I am sceptical.
In no way does Zenon call her a fraud, or accuse of using an ear piece. He doesn’t make a claim as to how Morgan did her performance. A lot of the rest of the article is talking about the different ways psychic performances are done. Communicating with the dead is not one of those reasons.
The article finishes with this line:
So if, Heaven forbid, performers like Ms Morgan aren’t actually talking to the dead… then I think the public has a right to know.
Again, no claim is made that Morgan is a “fraud”, “scam”, or “charlatan”. To be sure, the article is devastating to Morgan’s psychic claims because it clearly demonstrates how her performances match closely the tricks to faking being a psychic. I can’t see what Zenon did wrong here, from the skeptical point of view. This is what skeptics do all they time. They explain the prosaic to show how things don’t have to be extraordinary.
Whether or not the article is libelous within the UK doesn’t interest me much. It’s well known that the UK has a terrible libel law problem. I was concerned with the idea that a skeptic would make definitive claims of fraud, but now that I’ve done some research and found the original sources, I feel a lot better.