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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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

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