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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.