ABC Radio National’s The Spirit Of Things is a long-running show about spirituality presented by Dr Rachael Kohn. Its territory extends from straight interviews with interesting people to the more way-out fringes of spirituality.
Kohn and co-producer Geoff Wood journeyed out onto that fringe on 12 February, when The Spirit Of Things broadcast a remarkably accepting 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.
A program about spirituality will necessarily be less questioning than, say, a current affairs show. This episode of The Spirit Of Things, however, raises special questions about when ABC journalists should turn on their scepticism. In particular, should they pick up on signals that their subject may not be what she claims?
Some psychics, such as Derren Brown, happily admit that they’re just performing for the audience’s amusement. Rose Smith, however, is among those psychics who hold themselves out as having the genuine ability to “read” the thoughts of other people. She claims to treat the whole thing with philosophic seriousness.
What philosophy, precisely? Listen to the program at the 4:15 mark of the online The Spirit Of Things 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.”
This belief system appears to be related to the system of chakras referenced in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. If Kohn and Wood had even the mildest skepticism about it, they did not come across on air.
However, all sorts of spiritual and religious beliefs can appear odd when they’re unfamiliar. And there is a value in just getting it out onto the public record. Let’s just move on to the program’s 13:15 mark. That’s where I started to pay closer attention.
The first red flag: a hot reading?
The 13:15 mark is where Smith recounts how she astonished an earlier interviewer by saying that she knew the interviewer was moving house to the border of Willoughby and Chatswood in Sydney:
“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 fate, 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’.”
Note that Smith claims to give, at least in some cases, important information about people’s lives. She specifically rejects the idea that she is just trafficking in amusing trivia.
This exchange should also have sounded alarm bells for Kohn and Wood. Because 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’s called in the business a “hot reading”, the sort of claimed prediction that you perform by investigating the subject before you talk with them. Find one snippet they wouldn’t expect you to know, and you can wow them with “you’re moving to Willoughby”, get another glowing media interview, and keep the clients coming in.
It’s quite possible to believe both that psychic powers are bunk and that most psychics are legitimately convinced of their own ability – that they are subconsciously pushing out suggestions and questions that cause their subjects to be impressed by non-existent abilities. If you’re doing a hot reading, however, that charitable interpretation isn’t so easy. You have to make a conscious decision that rather than rely on your powers, you’re going to use public information and then pass it off as spiritual insight.
In other words, Smith’s statement was a huge, flapping red flag that her powers might come not from Spirit but from Google.
The second red flag: an online lead generation business
Then there’s the fact that Rose Smith is using her spiritual powers for some very earthly profit. And like any smart businessperson, she’s using the Internet to scale up her business model.
The good news for Smith and similar entrepreneurs is that these days, your psychic reading is most likely to be initiated via an online form. The actual reading is then done with telecommunications. You may be surprised that psychic energy can travel so well down copper telephone wires and co-axial cables and via the radio signals of the mobile phone networks whenever a psychic needs it to, but the implication of Smith’s business model is that it can.
This means that Smith can run her company along the same lines as, say, an online mortgage broker. She can become a lead generator, aggregating the details of the many who want psychic services and farming them out to individual psychics.
The big problem for a lead generation service is how to keep marketing costs lower than the cost of providing the services. The website of Smith’s firm, Absolute Soul Secrets, tells fellow psychics that she is doing pretty well at solving this problem, and so she has lots of work available:
“You can work from home or almost anywhere and earn $$$, £££, €€€ or whatever currency you like! … Prompt payment at great rates paid directly into your bank account …”
But how do the potential clients find out about Smith? The website explains that too:
“Heaps of media coverage online and in print.”
That “heaps of media coverage” used to come mainly from the likes of Seven’s Sunrise and the Daily Mail Online (sample headline: “Psychic warns ANOTHER ’emotionally charged’ Supermoon will send people over the edge this week”). But now Smith has gotten Radio National to interview her – and rather than being treated as harmless fun, her pronouncements about spirituality are being taken as having serious spiritual worth. For Smith, Radio National’s credibility is potentially worth a lot of $$$, £££, and €€€.
Are the BS detectors on at Spirit?
So a quick website visit and a listen to their own tape could have told Radio National’s Kohn and Wood that Smith is running a business that relies on media exposure, and that at least one of her self-described most impressive feats looks like a hot reading. If the two producers didn’t do some serious investigation based on this information, they have let their listeners down. And if they did dig, why did none of this information make it onto the aired program?
The territory of The Spirit Of Things has something to offer the ABC audience, and obviously Kohn and Wood’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 makes it admirably clear that journalists’ BS detectors should stay turned on:
“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 responds
I submitted these facts to the ABC’s complaints system on 15 February 2017. The response from ABC Audience & Consumer Affairs arrived today. It concluded that the program “complied with the ABC’s editorial standards”. It said in part:
“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.”
This response seems to spend very little time on the core of my concerns – that Kohn and Wood seem to have been, in the specific circumstances, less than optimally sceptical. Indeed, it refers to their open-mindedness. It also spends considerable time explaining that the references to Smith’s business were not excessive. Neither of these are the issue. The program left no doubt that the people behind it are extremely open-minded. And the more reminders the audience got that Rose Smith had a business, the better.
The issue isn’t that the ABC talked to a psychic. The issue was and is that there were good reasons for the show’s producers to dig more deeply into Ms Smith’s claims, and they failed to do so.
My exact complaint and the ABC response are posted at shorewalker.com. I’d be interested in readers’ comments on the content of the program and the ABC’s response.