Psychic TV

Sunday 7 November 2010

At just after 1am on a Saturday morning, an emotional woman picks up her phone and dials a premium rate phone number. Moments later she is connected to a live television psychic, to whom she tearfully explains her predicament. Her partner has just left her, she says, and he told her he is never coming back. The psychic pauses for a brief second, takes a deep breath, and unleashes a stream of spiritual wisdom. “There’s going to be a time and space where you won’t get communication,” he tells the woman, “but I’ve got to say to you, he does come back.”

The example is just one of many that could be culled from an evening watching Psychic TV – a popular interactive television programme available on both SKY and Freeview. The show, which claims to have just under 30m viewers, operates under the discreet disclaimer that it is for “entertainment purposes only,” rendering it legitimate under Ofcom’s recently revised Broadcasting Code. But to spend a few hours glued to Psychic TV late on any given Friday night is to confirm not only that Ofcom’s rules are lax – they are also being heavily flouted.

At a cost of £1.50 per minute, viewers are offered “the truth” from “natural born psychic mediums” who claim they can communicate with animals, talk to the dead and even detail past lives. The trouble is, it’s all absolutely serious. The psychics are keen to present themselves as authentic, offering callers ‘validation’ that they are bona fide “the best psychics in Britain,” genuinely in touch with the spirit world. “Our job is to prove to you beyond all doubt, without making it fit, that what we are doing is real,” one psychic named Hazel Lee announces. “We change lives… and the next person we help could be you.”

Not one psychic on Psychic TV presents him or herself as a novelty act, offering a service solely for the purposes of ‘entertainment’. In fact, the psychics spend much of their time trying to convince the audience of their legitimacy, citing a range of credentials as proof. Some of them went to the College of Psychic Studies, we are told – an establishment that says it is a "beacon of light and learning for those seeking to explore a consciousness beyond matter" – while others were apparently visited by spirits as children or had their ‘gift’ passed down hereditarily. Whether it be “pinpointing the cause of medical and physical problems,” or “tuning into your animal's deepest thoughts” – Psychic TV can offer it all. But at what cost?

According to Ofcom, “while psychic services may give rise to concerns about moral harm, no evidence of such harm is known to Ofcom.” Research commissioned by the regulator even goes as far as to use adjectives like “informative”, “uplifting”, “inspiring”, and “insightful” to describe Psychic TV. Female viewers in particular, the research notes, often perceive the show as “trustworthy and supportive”. But not everybody would agree. During consultations in 2007, for instance, The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) adopted a far more critical position. “Psychic reading channels raise significant harm and offence concerns,” they said.

The problem is that Ofcom, unlike the ASA, has been far too willing to overlook the huge moral and ethical questions raised by the existence of Psychic TV shows. It is part of their mission, they say, to protect against sharp practise and prevent misleading advertising. Yet their approval of a programme offering life changing ‘truth’ and advice drawn from ‘spirits’ at a price of £1.50 per minute suggests they have fallen asleep on duty. As a regulatory body serving the public interest, Ofcom must therefore reassess whether it is right, fair and decent that a for-profit business enterprise is given free rein to prey on the emotions, fears and anxieties of the lonely, lost and vulnerable.

Read Ofcom's response here.

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