The reputation of Sally Morgan

Will a famous TV Psychic now take on the <em>Daily Mail</em>?

This week's Private Eye has reported that highly successful "TV Psychic" Sally Morgan is "suing the Daily Mail for implying she is a cheat". Sally Morgan strongly denies any wrongdoing.

However, it appears that Private Eye was incorrect in suggesting that a formal legal claim has already been commenced. Sally Morgan's solicitor told me he has "made a formal libel complaint to Associated Newspapers, and [he] expect[s] instructions to sue for libel if the matter is not dealt with imminently". This is a formal "letter before action" which is required before libel proceedings are issued, rather than an actual legal claim. It has been sent because Sally Morgan strongly denies any wrongdoing.

The Daily Mail has published a number of critical articles about Sally Morgan, including a scathing one by Jan Moir on 22 September 2011. In respect of those articles, Sally Morgan strongly denies any wrongdoing.

Science writer and former libel defendant Dr Simon Singh has suggested there is a better way for any allegations to be dealt with. He told me:

When members of Sally's Dublin audience suspected she had an earpiece on stage, a group of us (me, Professor Chris French and Merseyside Skeptics) decided that the best way forward was simply to enable Sally to demonstrate her powers in a scientific experiment.

Is she really a psychic?

Can she really communicate with the dead?

We bent over backwards to create a test that would allow her to clear her name. Instead of accepting the challenge, Sally set her solicitor on to me, and I received a series of heavy legal emails. I don't understand why Sally resorts to a libel lawyer, when her best approach to restoring her reputation would be to prove her abilities.

However, as many people tell me, you don't have to be psychic to work out why Sally doesn't want to be tested.

Whatever her reasons for not agreeing to be tested, it is clear that Sally Morgan strongly denies any wrongdoing.

But is the High Court in London really a better forum for establishing the truth of Sally Morgan's abilities? Is the case not dissimilar to the misconceived and illiberal libel claim brought against Dr Simon Singh by the now discredited British Chiropractic Association? In that case, the Court of Appeal ruled that scientific tests and papers were the appropriate way of testing extraordinary claims, and not libel litigation. Indeed, the Court of Appeal expressly adopted the following quotation from an American judge:

[Plaintiffs] cannot, by simply filing suit and crying "character assassination!", silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs' interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. ... More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models -- not larger awards of damages -- mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.

The question is whether libel litigation is really the best way of establishing the truth behind the powers that Sally Morgan claims to have, and relentlessly promotes commercially to those wanting to be in contact with lost ones. Depending on how a claim is framed, it may be that the Daily Mail will have to prove that Sally Morgan is dishonest, rather than her showing how she does what she claims to do.

So Sally Morgan may strongly deny any wrongdoing, but one can fairly ask: is libel litigation the best method of working out what she actually is doing instead?

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear