The people who visit psychics are vulnerable and unlikely to complain – new consumer legislation is letting them down
This time last year you’d be forgiven for thinking that mediums and psychics had finally run out of luck. New consumer legislation that replaced the Fraudulent Mediums Act (FMA) was widely interpreted as forcing psychics to put up a disclaimer saying what they did was not scientifically proven. Under the old law, prosecutors had to prove an intent to deceive, but under the new regulations psychics had to prove they did not mislead, hence the disclaimers. The British Humanist Society announced at the time that people would be better protected from psychics preying on the vulnerable. They are not.
Phone calls to trading standards officers around the country by aggrieved mediums at the Spiritualists National Union revealed that some officers didn’t know how to interpret the new law, while many didn’t know that it had changed at all. This confusion is reflected in the official figures. Since the legislation came into force a year ago (regulating all trades, not just mediums), Trading Standards have received more than 872,000 complaints, of which only 240 were about psychics. Now the Department for Business and Regulation, in an email to the Spiritualist Union this year, has openly stated: “It’s not clear why mediums believe there is now a need for disclaimers.”
Now according to legal representation for the Spiritualist Movement, putting up a disclaimer was always discretionary – a matter of psychics showing due diligence that they had made every effort to warn people that it’s just a demonstration, a mere distracting entertainment. As everyone who visits a medium believes in his/her psychic abilities, they will no doubt feel they’ve received what they paid for, disclaimer or no disclaimer.
But the people who visit mediums are vulnerable; they are attached to their beliefs like a comfort blanket in a storm. In that state of mind, would they realise that they should complain? The Office of Fair Trading has a measure of vulnerability that determines not just how harmful fraud is, but to what degree a person’s belief makes them more willing to believe and thus be duped. But complaints that Trading Standards investigate are almost always of financial loss or physical harm rather than psychological damage, which gives little recourse to those harmed by psychics.
So what makes someone vulnerable enough to see and believe in a psychic? To answer that we first have to control our knee-jerk attitude that stigmatises people who visit mediums as ignorant and stupid – that in itself shows a staggering ignorance of the social and personal forces that construct and reinforce someone’s belief. No one would disagree that health inequalities are a complex interaction of social forces that reward the less well-off with shorter lives. Guardian readers wouldn’t shout at a morbidly obese person, “it’s ‘cos you’re stupid”, so neither should we do the same to someone who gets comfort from a medium, rather than a Mars bar. Sure, it might not lead to cancer or heart disease, but the social causes are similar, though the consequences are not as straightforward.
Much of the evidence about psychics and vulnerability is anecdotal, which doesn’t invalidate the experiences, but shows that these individual cases deserve at least a measure of our empathy. So what do we think about the psychic who led on a traumatised mother with a missing child while wasting police time with her psychic hunches? We might loathe her, but what if the mother felt strengthened by her presence? Or what about the businesswoman who lost her husband suddenly to a heart attack and entered a deep depression for two years? Then for the first time in her life she saw a medium who claimed to get in touch with her husband. The depression lifted, she was able to get on with her life and she hasn’t been to see a medium since, although her belief in the afterlife has been strengthened. Are they stupid or just using the most effective tool they can to help them get through life’s traumas?
And why would the mother with a missing child feel that she should report this medium if her belief is so strong that she sees nothing wrong? Should we protect her or dismiss her as ignorant and deluded? Should the police encourage psychics by bowing to families’ wishes to include them in the search, which is current police policy? Who’s the fraud – the police or the medium? Who should trading standards investigate? And is society to blame for not coming up with a list of belief inequalities? Why do people believe, what do they get out of it and are there common forces determining these beliefs? Working class women, disempowered and poor, have been the mainstay of the psychic movement since the first eruption of psychic energy in the mid-1800s. Little has changed. Their belief in magic is an escape route from a deprived background and a call for help in a world that only gives them endless consumer goods and a bad education. It’s the middle class, remember, who can afford their own magic of opportunity and aspiration.
Yet where the new consumer protection should act, it fails. Psychics on premium rate psychic telephone services are forced to keep callers on the line for at least 25 minutes to make the company enough money. Yet Trading Standards have not prosecuted any psychics or companies ripping people off in this way. “It’s a cut-throat business,” one psychic told me. “The ladies who set up these premium-rate phone lines start with the best of intentions, after that they start screaming that we have to do and say anything to keep them on the line.” These premium psychics tell callers that unless they talk through their relationship problems they will be harmed, or that they can see a dark presence in their lives. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s not the point. The point is seeing it from their perspective, which is a lot harder than most people will accept. Only then will we come to realise that just because people don’t realise they have to complain doesn’t mean they don’t have a valid complaint.