The ABC responds to a complaint regarding "The Spirit of Things"
An exchange of emails regarding an interview with a "psychic" on ABC Radio National's The Spirit Of Things program.
On 12 February 2017, ABC Radio National's The Spirit Of Things broadcast a remarkable 35-minute interview with Rose Smith. Smith claims to be a genuine psychic – that is, to have access to information hidden from the normal and known human senses.
In a message to the ABC on 15 February, I set out some issues with this program – essentially an official complaint. The bulk of that message is set out below.
The second message below was emailed to me by the ABC on 1 March 2017.
On 12 February and again on 15 February, The Spirit Of Things broadcast a 35-minute interview with "psychic" Rose Smith. The program is available at:
This program raises concerns in my mind about possible breaches of ABC editorial policies, as well as some additional concerns.
Some psychics are happy to admit that what they're doing is just an act. Rose Smith, however, holds herself out as having the genuine ability to read the minds of other people.
At the same time, Smith is running a for-profit online business, Absolute Soul Secrets, which appears to be a online marketing aggregation/lead generation site for people who claim to be able to conduct psychic readings:
At Absolute Soul Secrets, psychic readings are initiated via an online form, with the actual reading then done via telephone. It appears likely that she would take a fee or commission for her lead generation services, as is normal in this business model.
It might be tempting to simply dismiss this as harmless fluff. However, Smith claims that her firm is "The Largest and Most Reputable Psychic Network in Australia and possibly the World!" Her business appears to be reasonably substantial. The psychic industry is estimated by IBISWorld to be worth more than $A2 billion in the US alone:
In a business sense, Smith has made a fairly routine adaptation of the business model used for activities such as online mortgage broking. As is normal in such a business, Smith advertises to individual psychics that she has lots of work available:
Smith's online sales pitch to potential psychics includes the specific statement that she generates leads for psychics using positive media coverage: "You can work from home or almost anywhere and earn $$$, £££, €€€ or whatever currency you like! ... Prompt payment at great rates paid directly into your bank account ... Heaps of media coverage online and in print."
This last claim is at least partially correct. Smith has received enthusiastic media coverage in outlets such as Seven's Sunrise, Harper's Bazaar magazine and the Daily Mail Online ("Psychic warns ANOTHER 'emotionally charged' Supermoon will send people over the edge this week").
On the Spirit of Things program of 12 February, Smith's claimed beliefs about spirituality were presented in a manner that:
A) was less questioning that might be expected from an ABC program, especially given the nature of those claims;
B) failed to properly contextualise her commercial interests; and
C) specifically failed to point out or discuss with Smith a clear flag that rather than being a convinced psychic, she might be conducting activities intended to mislead her customers into believing she had powers she knew she did not possess.
A. LIMITED QUESTIONING
Smith's purported understanding of her powers was detailed, unsupported by evidence, and highly unlikely. The entire program should be listened to in this regard. A sample comes at the 4:15 mark of the online program, where Smith explains that:
"Everybody has an energy coming down through their Soul Star, which is above their head, probably 30 to 45 centimetres above the head, and the soul, which is the fullness of the person, including all their past lives, and all their existences, for ever and ever, which is a lot, because, you know, we are all immortal beings that go on forever. So we are having a human experience this time, here, at the moment, and that energy, from all of our total experience ... the essence of it will come down through our bodies and go down into the earth, which is what holds us here and keeps us alive, basically."
At no point did presenter and interviewer Rachel Kohn seriously question any of this, either during the interview or in her other commentary. I acknowledge that there may be a value in just getting it out onto the public record. But Kohn's interview style is such that it could reasonably be concluded that she found Smith's claims credible and believable.
B. COMMERCIAL INTERESTS
Smith does briefly describe her business. At no point, however, does the interviewer/presenter expand on the Absolute Soul Secrets business model, the importance to that business of uncritical media coverage, or the incentive it creates for Smith to make claims as to her spiritual power.
C. A CLEAR WARNING OF POSSIBLE INTENT TO MISLEAD
At the 13:15 mark, Smith recounted how she had astonished an earlier interviewer by telling them that she knew they were moving house to the border of Willoughby and Chatswood. Quote from Smith:
"She was stunned, 'cause I mean, that is specific ... and she said 'how did you know that, and I said 'because it just came to me while you were talking to me' ... I just leave myself open, and I trust what I get. It is all about faith, and trust, that I will get what the person needs to hear ... that's what Spirit wants them to know at that moment, because it's important'."
This exchange should have sounded alarm bells for Kohn and her producer. Recent property transactions are precisely the sort of personal information that can be gleaned not by applying psychic powers, but from an earlier public records check. Smith's tale sounds like what is called in the business a "hot reading" i.e. a claimed prediction that you perform by investigating the subject before you talk with them. The "psychic" in this case needs to find one snippet that the subject wouldn't expect you to know, and repeat it to them, in order to impress them, get another good media interview, and thus attract further clients to their lead generation business.
In other words, Smith's statement was a huge red flag that she may have been knowingly have been doing something other than what she claimed to do, and believing something other than what she claimed to believe, for the sake of commercial gain.
If Kohn and her producer didn't do some serious investigation based on this statement, they have let down both their listeners and the institution of the ABC.
In light of this, I have concerns about the editorial quality of The Spirit Of Things and about its compliance with ABC policies.
The territory of The Spirit Of Things has something to offer the ABC audience, and obviously Kohn's beat requires a certain openness to ideas that are not taken seriously by everyone. But this is also territory with its fair share of swindlers. Like business journalists, people covering spirituality need to keep their BS detectors switched on.
The relevant section of the ABC's Editorial Policies says:
"The ABC should make reasonable efforts, appropriate in the context, to signal to audiences gradations in accuracy, for example by querying interviewees, qualifying bald assertions, supplementing the partly right and correcting the plainly wrong ... Make reasonable efforts to ensure that material facts are accurate and presented in context." ...
The ABC response
Dear Mr Walker
Thank you for contacting the ABC with your concerns about the “You will meet a tall dark stranger” episode of RN’s The Spirit of Things, broadcast on 12 February 2017.
Your complaint has been referred to Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of content making within the ABC. Our role is to review, and where necessary investigate, complaints alleging that ABC content has breached the ABC's editorial standards. The standards are set out in the ABC’s Code of Practice. The Code of Practice is available here: http://about.abc.net.au/reports-publications/code-of-practice/.
The Spirit of Things is produced by ABC Radio’s RN. It is described on its homepage as an adventure into religion and spirituality. It explores contemporary values and beliefs as expressed through ritual, art, music, and sacred texts. It focuses on how people discover, celebrate and make sense of spiritual meaning in their lives, both in established traditions and novel beliefs and practices. It is not a news and current affairs program. Nor is it a business program. The program has been in production for over 10 years. During that time it has covered a broad range topics within this genre, from the Goddess Movement (2007); Faith Healers (2014); Tantra (2015); Atheist Ministers (2016); and Yoga Ethics (2017).
The “You will meet a tall dark stranger” broadcast featured psychic, Rosie Smith, and academic, Professor Doug Ezzy. The focus of the program was exploring supernatural practices that exist within the community. The discussion with Ms Smith examined the use of psychics in Australia, while the discussion with Professor Ezzy looked at paganism in Australia, and in particular amongst young women and girls. Ms Smith was introduced as a psychic from the Gold Coast, who previously worked as a psychotherapist. She discussed how she became a psychic reader; her methods; what customers typical want from a reading; her ethical standards; and how she has commercialised physic readings. Professor Ezzy was introduced as the author of Sex, Death and Witchcraft. He discussed the findings of his research including the rise of paganism and its varied forms.
The focus of the program was not to debunk these practises, but rather to understand more about them. Audiences were provided with information about each guests’ background and their credentials in their respective areas of expertise. The fact that Ms Smith ran a commercial psychic operation was noted, allowing listeners to draw their own conclusions about Ms Smith’s credibility and motivations. Ms Smith was also questioned about the legitimacy of her business. Host, Dr Rachel Kohn, made mention of the psychic industry being ripe for fraud. Ms Smith was also directly questioned about her ethical guidelines and her response to sceptics.
On review of the broadcast as a whole, we are satisfied that it complied with the ABC’s editorial standards. We are satisfied that the audience was given sufficient background information about Ms Smith to assess the veracity of her statements regarding her so-called psychic powers. The fact that psychics are often not believed was also addressed during the course of the discussion. Given the subject matter and the general nature of the program, we are satisfied that the audiences’ expectation of accuracy in relation to Ms Smith’s claims would have been calibrated accordingly, in line with section 2 of the ABC’s editorial standards. Similarly, we are satisfied that, in accordance with standard 4.1, the questions posed by Dr Kohn were duly open-minded, again having regard to the type of program that The Spirit of Things is. We acknowledge that the program did include references to Ms Smith’s commercial enterprise. References of this kind are permitted under standard 12 – Commercial references. The references were justified by the editorial context in which they were made – namely Ms Smith speaking about the various ways in which a psychic reading can occur. The references were not unduly frequent. Neither the program nor the ABC endorsed Ms Smith’s business. Moreover, in our view, the references to these commercial operations were necessary to provide listeners with sufficient information to enable them to form their own judgement about Ms Smith’s psychic claims, and the practice more generally.
Should you be dissatisfied with this response, you may be able to pursue your complaint with the Australian Communications and Media Authority: http://www.acma.gov.au.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact the ABC. Although we have not upheld you complaint, please be assured that we have raised your concerns directly with ABC Radio.
Audience and Consumer Affairs