She’s very excited to be here and give you a message, but she’ll have to wait a few minutes until she finishes cold reading the audience before she can pass it on. I’m talking, of course, about “Britain’s Best-Loved Psychic”, Sally Morgan, who has come under fire after people attending her show in Dublin called “shenanigans” on the whole affair. People who attended the show called into LiveLine, claiming that they had heard information being fed to Sally moments before she repeated it on stage. This story was not just put forward by one attendee, but by many others who called in to support the claims, saying that they too had heard prompting and/or information being passed. Interestingly, though I’m sure many will accuse skeptics of merely wanting to debunk her, these stories did not come from an organised group of skeptics, but from people who paid to attend the show, hoping to receive messages. I wish one of them had thought to record what they heard!

It’s a rough time to be Sally Morgan, and articles about the Grand Canal Theatre fiasco have prompted a response from the theatre, and from Sally herself. In short, she reaffirms that she doesn’t use “plants”, that she has never met McKeown or Skelly, and that she’s just sharing her gift while running the gauntlet of skeptics and cynics. And I’m almost inclined to believe that she’s telling the truth, simply because it doesn’t seem like she’d need that stuff; she already gets all of the “psychic” information she needs from the guests at the show, before it starts. A quote from Sally’s website will help me to explain why and how Sally has been “hot reading” successfully for years, whether or not she’s got a plant:

Get to the venue early to take full advantage of the many ways that Sally can give you a message:

* Complete one of Sally’s ‘Love Letter’ cards in the venue foyer and leave a question for Sally.

* Leave a video message on Sally’s special ‘Psychic Cam’ which she may play during the show.

* Bring a photo of a loved one passed and Sally may be able to connect with them in spirit world.

So, Sally encourages people to arrive early so that they have enough time to write down or film their questions/stories, and then pop their photo in the “dead loved ones” box, allowing her plenty of time to “attune” to the spirits before she takes to the stage. Of course, because of the sporadic nature of her “gift”, there’s no telling who will receive a reading, and who won’t, but I’d hazard a guess that those who pony up at the start of the show are high on her hit list.

In addition to the fact that she asks guests to provide information which, surely, she should already know, there is also the way in which she “reads”. Frequently asked questions include “is he/she in spirit” and “what does that mean”, and while one might excuse not understanding a family in joke, surely a medium shouldn’t need to ask if the person she is receiving is actually dead? Clearly, simply having all of the information up front isn’t enough. Rather, she employs a shrewd and calculated combination of “hot reading” and “cold reading” which deceives vulnerable or gulliable people into believing that she is speaking to the dead.

On one occasion, an audience member tells Sally that she has had a son (“A year ago I had a little boy”). About two minutes later, Sally asks “did you have a little boy”. By rapidly changing topic, peppering the conversation with generalities that are likely to elicit an emotional response (“daddy saw it”, “I love you”, “blowing kisses”) and false-specifics that are likely to be remembered as unknowable truths (“all the cards, daddy was there” – after the birth of a child, or on any birthday, there will be cards, so it’s a very safe assertion to make, “you have to tell him I fell asleep” – a common lie told to children who might not understand death), Sally makes sure that this audience member won’t remember or realise that she’s just told Sally, 2 minutes ago, that she had a son about a year ago, thus prompting “new baby” cards, and, since it’s been about a year, “1st birthday” cards. In recalling this incident, it’s likely that all that will be remembered is that Sally knew she had a little boy, and that there were cards with baby booties on them, even though “she couldn’t have known”. You can see the amazement etched on the face of her sister, standing with her, as she leans in to comment on what Sally is saying, and she is obviously impressed that Sally knew there were cards, and that she had a little boy, and that it was his birthday, when in reality, Sally knew what she had been told only moments before, and made a simple assumption based on that information.

These techniques are not specific to this one reading, or this one show – Sally has a regular show that is now airing on Living TV, which follows her as she travels around the UK and performs, and each episode contains similar readings. Another, more humorous example of some blatant “lukewarm reading” shows what happens when she receives a spirit who doesn’t realise that he’s not a man. As she starts her usual line of questioning to probe information from the audience, she’s cut rather short, as it becomes apparent that the “Bernard” she’s channelling is actually someone’s grandmother. This clip is from her own show, and sadly, the video clip cuts off before she can explain how that was her intent all along.

Sally Morgan is not a psychic, and she can’t speak to the dead. If she could, and it was truly not under her control, well, I for one would expect far fewer “lovely” people who are in heaven, and at least a few visits from that grumpy old relative that was a bit of a git, loathed by all, and likely bound for somewhere other than the pearly gates. Sally is a shrewd businesswoman who makes a profit by taking advantage of vulnerable people, selling tickets, books, and dvds to those who have been taken in by her performance. She is a simple con artist, who will continue to make money for as long as people are willing to keep giving it to her.

Whether or not she used plants in the Dublin show is, all told, a bit immaterial – it should be clear to anyone who has seen her shows, live or on tv, that she is not performing real magic or speaking with spirits, but simply lying, and putting on a show. If she uses plants, or stagehands, or “light technicians” to feed her information, then it is simply one more source of information that is readily given to her by the very people who have come to her show to be told vague things that they already knew, by a women pretending to be someone they love.

I believe that Sally Morgan is a cheating, manipulative, profiteering fraud who has no genuine psychic ability, and who likely uses any means necessary to continue the charade, though I don’t believe that she is stupid, unintelligent, or unaware of what she is doing – it takes skill to cold read well, and it takes balls of steel to ask your audience to tell you all the information up front and then present it on stage as if you have plucked it from the mouth of a relative “in spirit”. She, like all those who claim psychic abilities, has been presented with the James Randi $1,000,000 challenge, and like all those who claim psychic abilities, she has yet to claim her prize. I may even have a touch of the psychic myself, as I predict that this latest scandal may not harm ticket or book sales as much as I would hope – her next two shows in Dublin are sold out and have been for some time, and her statement about the Grand Canal Theatre claims already has a number comments from those who believe that she is being unfairly targeted, or that the people of Ireland are giving Sally a hard time.

Sally says “People wonder “where am I getting it from” and for many they would only ever understand if t could be explained scientifically [sic]” and I think this may be the most accurate prediction that she has made in some time. While I don’t wonder where she’s getting it (because I have a pretty good idea about the sources), I’m not at all sorry to say that, unless Sally can prove that it works, and how it works, scientifically, I’ll continue believing that it doesn’t at all.

Yours in spirit…