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January 2008

Lock ‘Em Up!

This government petitioning thing is throwing up some interesting views. A current petition on the government’s website points out that the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 has hardly ever been used in the prosecution of mediums and psychics. But why not, the petitioners want to know. They complain that “there are increasingly more TV shows and live acts where people claiming to be mediums and psychics prey on vulnerable people who have lost loved ones, giving them spurious information and taking their money.” The Act should be revised to make it easier to prosecute them, they say.

This is quite logical, if you think that the impossibility of contacting the dead has been proved beyond doubt. If natural law rules out any possibility of psychism then people who call themselves psychics are by definition petty criminals and should be fined or sent to prison.

B
ut where do you draw the line? Christianity is built on the idea that people survive death, so if vicars encourage the bereaved to believe that their loved ones are looking down on them from heaven, should they be prosecuted too? Or is it just taking people’s money that we should object to?

This line of thinking takes the mere fact of claiming to be in touch with spirits to be illegal, because impossible in nature. But that’s not (yet) a basis for law. The Fraudulent Mediums Act doesn’t assume that all mediumship is bogus, it just makes it an offence to practice an obvious deception. So if you’re discovered faking the return of spirits in bodily form - what Helen Duncan was convicted for under the old Witchcraft Act in the 1940s - you’re nicked. But if you are Gordon Smith or John Edward, quietly chatting to your audience without props or aids, it’s a different matter. Sceptics can dismiss this as ‘cold reading’, a mentalist act, but the actual mechanic would be impossible to prove in a court of law.

In the end, that’s why the police don’t show up at television studios to drag mediums off to the cells.  As long as we think such things might be possible then we give them and their audience the benefit of the doubt. But I can quite see that a militant sceptic could only have one point of view: it’s grubby and cruel, and locking them up would be a service to society.