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Psychic TV: consciousness beyond matter (and OFCOM)

Ever had a funny feeling that we are not being looked after enough? A story of how distressed people are persuaded to waste their money on private service television

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 (see below).  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 (read their response below), “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.

Ofcom's response

Dear Mr Gallagher,

[...] In 2009 Ofcom conducted research into the views of users of Psychic TV services. This research found that participants held mixed views about such services. While almost none of the participants of the research believed that this kind of product was genuine, most were of the view that it was a relatively harmless form of entertainment. For others, however, it was felt to be harmful, on the grounds that it would largely be used by those in need of professional counseling, which undermined its claimed status as an “entertainment” product. To a lesser extent, the protection of children and young people was also an issue, though most felt that a product of this nature would be of little interest to this audience. In addition, a key finding from the research was that irrespective of this divide in feeling, most people were of the opinion that the product has a right to exist, arguing in favour of freedom of choice and expressing concerns about “nanny state”–type restrictions. 

Under the Communications Act 2003, the responsibility for Ofcom is to balance these broadcaster and viewer freedoms against the very important need to give appropriate protection to children and the vulnerable. The BCAP Code contains clear and strict rules that aim to protect viewers from potentially harmful advertisements. However, it is important to note that advertisements for psychic and occult practices have been permitted on radio for the last ten years, provided they do not make efficacy claims, are compliant with the rules on harm and misleading advertising, and are centrally cleared by the Radio Advertising Clearance Centre (RACC).

Where Ofcom finds evidence that psychic television has broadcast harmful advice we take firm and swift enforcement action.  For example, please see Ofcom’s recently published finding relating to the broadcast of harmful advice on a programme of this nature, in broadcast bulletin 162.

In addition to our regulatory duties in this area, PhonepayPlus also regulate the content of premium rate telephone services.

Psychic television and its current regulation under the BCAP Code is an area that will continue to be closely monitored by Ofcom.

The BCAP Code has specific rules relating to the promotion of psychic practices aimed at ensuring that viewers are not misled and that there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable. In particular, Section 15 of the BCAP Code “faith, religion and equivalent systems of belief‟ includes rules that specifically relate to the broadcast of psychic practices. In particular, Rule 15.4 of the BCAP Code states:

Television advertisements must not promote psychic practices or practices related to the occult, except those permitted by rule 15.5 [For example, horoscopes, tarot and derivative practices]. Radio advertisements may promote psychic and occult practices but must not make efficacy claims.  Psychic and occult-related practices include ouija, satanism, casting of spells, palmistry, attempts to contact the dead, divination, clairvoyance, clairaudience, the invocation of spirits or demons and exorcism.

This rule prohibits the promotion of psychic practices or practices related to the occult in television advertisements, which includes any suggestion of contacting the dead, whether broadcast live or pre-recorded.  Rule 15.5.2 states:

Advertisements for personalised and live services that rely on belief in astrology, horoscopes, tarot and derivative practices are acceptable only on channels that are licensed for the purpose of the promotion of such services and are appropriately labelled: both the advertisement and the product or service itself must state that the product or service is for entertainment purposes only.

Rule 15.5.2 clearly requires both the advertisements and the product or service to state that the product or service is for entertainment purposes only. As set out above, Ofcom has found that viewers tend to consider psychic services to be a relatively harmless form of entertainment and therefore these services should be appropriately labelled as such. Ofcom will assess compliance with this rule on a case by case basis. In addition to this, Rule 15.5.3 states:

Advertising permitted under rule 15.5 may not:
  • Make claims for efficacy or accuracy;
  • Predict negative experiences or specific events;
  • Offer life-changing advice directed at individuals – including advice related to health (including pregnancy) or financial situation;
  • Appeal particularly to children;
  • Encourage excessive use.

This rule clearly prohibits claims for accuracy in advertising of psychic practices. This rule also prohibits advertisements offering life-changing advice. Under the BCAP Code life-changing advice is interpreted as direct advice for individuals upon which they could reasonably act or rely. Such advice may include health, finance, employment, and relationship advice.  The BCAP Code also contains rules to prevent misleading and harmful advertising (sections 3 and 4).

When considering such complaints Ofcom will also take into account:

  • the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008; and
  • the context of the advertisement when considering issues of potentially harmful advice or content.

Ofcom considers cases of potentially harmful or misleading advertisements on a case by case basis.

Yours Sincerely,

Case Leader, Content & Standards

[Read Ofcom's full response]

If you have watched Psychic TV and would like to lodge a complaint, you can do so here.

The makers of Psychic TV were not available for comment.

About the author

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London.


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