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 to end the Gulf stand off? The West should tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy

Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon on the unfolding crisis in the Gulf. 

Only one group stands to benefit from a continuation of the crisis in Gulf: The Quartet, as they are now being called. Last week, The United Arab Emirates foreign minister tweeted that Qatar and its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbours are heading for a "long estrangement". We should take him at his word.

The European political establishment has been quick to dismiss the boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt as naïve, and a strategic mistake. The received wisdom now is that they have acted impulsively, and that any payoff will be inescapably pyrrhic. I’m not so sure.

Another view: Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's foreign minister, was in the region over the weekend to see if he could relay some of his boss’s diplomatic momentum. He has offered to help mediate with Kuwait, clearly in the belief that this is the perfect opportunity to elevate France back to the top table. But if President Emmanuel Macron thinks this one will be as straightforward as a Donald Trump handshake, he should know that European charm doesn’t function as well in the 45 degree desert heat (even if some people call him the Sun King).

Western mediation has so far proceeded on the assumption that both sides privately know they will suffer if this conflict drags on. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson judged that a Qatari commitment to further counter-terrorism measures might provide sufficient justification for a noble reversal. But he perhaps underestimates the seriousness of the challenge being made to Qatar. This is not some poorly-judged attempt to steal a quick diplomatic win over an inferior neighbour.

Qatar’s foreign policy is of direct and existential concern to the other governments in the Gulf. They will not let Qatar off the hook. And even more than that, why should they? Qatar has enormous diplomatic and commercial clout for its size, but that would evaporate in an instant if companies and governments were forced to choose between Doha and the Quartet, whose combined GDP is almost ten times that of their former ally. Iran, Turkey and Russia might stay on side. But Qatar would lose the US and Europe, where most of its soft power has been developed. Qatar’s success has been dependent on its ability to play both sides. If it loses that privilege, as it would in the event of an interminable cold war in the Gulf, then the curtains could come down.

Which is why, if they wanted to badly enough, Le Drian and Tillerson could end this conflict tomorrow. Qatar’s foreign policy has been concerning for the past decade. It has backed virtually every losing side in the Arab world, and caused a significant amount of destruction in the process. In Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, Qatar has turned a blind eye to the funding of Islamic revolutionaries with the financial muscle to topple incumbent regimes. Its motives are clear; influence over the emergent republics, as it had in Egypt for a year under Mohamed Morsi. But as we review the success of this policy from the perspective of 2017, it seems clear that all that has been achieved is a combination of civil unrest and civil war. The experiment has failed.

Moreover, the Coalition is not going to lift sanctions until Doha suspends its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. When Western leaders survey the Gulf and consider who they should support, they observe two things: firstly, that the foreign policy of the Quartet is much more aligned with their own (it doesn’t seem likely to me that any European or American company would prefer to see a revolution in Dubai instead of a continuation of the present arrangement), and secondly, that Qatar would fold immediately if they applied any significant pressure. The Al Thani ruling family has bet its fortune and power on trans-Atlantic support; it is simply not credible that they would turn to the West’s enemies in the event that an ultimatum was issued. Doha might even welcome an excuse to pause its costly and ineffective programmes. Even if that involves some short term embarrassment. It is hardly going to lose support at home, with the highest GDP per capita in the world.

It would be necessary to make sure that the Coalition understands that it will have to pay a price for decisive Western intervention. The world will be a more dangerous place if our allies get the impression they can freely bully any smaller rival, knowing that the West will always come down on their side. That is however no great hurdle to action; it might even be a positive thing if we can at the same time negotiate greater contributions to counter-terrorism or refugee funding.

Unfortunately the reason why none of this is likely to happen is partly that the West has lost a lot of confidence in its ability to resolve issues in the Middle East since 2003, and partly because it fears for its interests in Doha and the handsome Qatari contributions in Western capitals. This cautious assessment is wrong and will be more harmful to Qatar and the aforementioned interests. The Quartet has no incentive to relent, it can’t afford to and will profit from commercial uncertainty in Doha the longer this drags on. If the West really wants this to end now, it must tell Qatar to reform its foreign policy or face sanctions from a more threatening ally.

Geoffrey Hoon was the UK defence secretary from 1999 to 2005.  

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