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