The Spirit and the Law – consumer protection and mediums

A certain section of the British spiritualist community is protesting again the repeal of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 (UK). The Independent reported the other day that the recently formed Spiritualist Workers Association (SWA) believes that the repeal of the legislation is discriminatory towards spiritualism. The Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU) which is a long-established body, backed the changes.

The government has denied that the changes are in any way discriminatory, saying that the repeal of the legislation is merely intended to pave the way for the implementation of the EC Unfair Commercial Practices law. The Consumer Protection Regulations cover all activities involving the supply of goods and services to consumers in trade or business, and like our Australian Trade Practices Legislation, looks to prohibit any activity which is misleading to consumers, and aggressive selling techniques.

The issue is that the previous act (which replaced the Witchcraft Act 1735) required the medium to have a deceptive intent or to use a fraudulent device before any contravention could be proven. Very few prosecutions were made, because it was difficult to prove dishonest intent. By contrast, it will be easier to punish or prosecute fraudulent mediums under ordinary consumer protection laws. According to this article in The Times, about £40 million is lost per annum as a result of fraudulent clairvoyant or spiritualist schemes. I agree with the author that the veracity of the religion is not being challenged: it is merely that those who provide services should be subject to uniform standards, and should not make claims that mislead or exploit vulnerable people.

When looking at the issue, I found this interesting directive by the UK Committee of Advertising Practice, which summarises its conclusions for spiritualists, psychics and the like as follows:

  • Marketers should hold documentary evidence to prove any claims that are capable of objective substantiation;
  • Marketers should not mislead or exploit vulnerable people;
  • Claims about successfully solving problems or improving health should be avoided because they are likely to be impossible to prove;
  • Claims of ‘help offered’ should be replaced with ‘advice’;
  • References to healing should refer to spiritual rather than physical healing;
  • Direct marketers should not imply that they have personal knowledge about recipients;
  • Claims relating to the accuracy of readings or guaranteed results should not be made unless they are backed up by appropriate evidence;
  • Claims about being a personal advisor to stars, the wealthy etc and claims such as ‘…as featured on TV’ should be backed up by appropriate evidence;
  • Claims relating to the length of time that a marketer has been established should be backed up by evidence;
  • Money-back guarantees should be clear and genuine;
  • Any testimonials used should be genuine;
  • Marketers should not imply that a lucky charm can directly affect a user’s circumstances;
  • Claims that a lucky charm can act as a confidence prop are acceptable if emphasis is placed on a user’s state of mind, and unproven beliefs that do not relate to the effect of a lucky charm may be acceptable if expressed as a matter of opinion;
  • Marketers offering premium rate fortune telling services should adhere to the ICSTIS Code of Practice.

Sounds eminently sensible to me…any UK clairvoyant, spiritualist or other practitioner in the alternative health sphere would do well to heed it, and then they shouldn’t have any problem with the new legislation. Legitimate practitioners need not worry, because presumably they can provide evidence of their skills, accreditation and testimonials from satisfied customers.

Some lawyers have suggested that spiritualists should describe their service as “entertainment” or a scientific experiment. Hmm, I don’t think so. Just don’t make claims that you can’t back up.

Personally, I don’t rule out the existence of talents which I cannot explain or the effectiveness of alternative treatments, although I have a fair measure of scepticism about some practices. What I very much object to is unrealistic claims about the provision of such services.

I particularly dislike some faith healing claims where, if the service doesn’t work, the fault is not that of the practitioner or the healing method, but the fault of the patient for lacking “faith” or “determination”. As someone who has suffered from illness and disability from an early age, I know that there are some things which just can’t be fixed. Don’t get me wrong: positive thought and determination are very useful. But you’re not a failure if you’re ill. The last thing you need if you are ill is to feel that somehow it is your fault. I have personally benefited from some “alternative” therapies in relation to problems with walking, including Feldenkrais, yoga, acupuncture and Bowen therapy. A friend’s mother gave me Feldenkrias training when I was a teenager after I had an operation on my legs and had to learn to walk again, and it was extremely helpful. I doubt I would have recovered so quickly or so well without it. But ultimately, some problems can never be totally “healed”.

I guess the ultimate point for all consumers is: IF IT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT IS! How loudly can I say it (well, type it)?

It doesn’t matter whether it’s spiritualism, alternative therapy or investment services. In one of my jobs, I used to come across a lot of share scams and investment scams, and I’ve seen some tragic cases. Indeed, there was a case in the paper this morning about the collapse of a Geelong investment firm which reportedly promised some investors returns of up to 70%. As I always tell my class: as a general rule, the return is directly proportional to the risk – the higher the return, the higher the risk!

So, to all you consumers out there, retain a measure of scepticism and don’t get carried away by extraordinary claims. I’m all for uniform standards which keep those who provide services to the public on the straight and narrow.

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3 Comments

Filed under consumer affairs, crazy stuff, law, society

3 responses to “The Spirit and the Law – consumer protection and mediums

  1. At least prognosticators (whether psychic or rational) make falsifiable claims: something that deists don’t.

    Mind you, as a class, they have a bad track record: I wonder if "shocking day/week ahead" appeared in New York media just before the World Trade Center attacks, or Bhopal media before the more deadly capitalist negligence, etc, etc, etc.

    (Evil giggle) Perhaps track-record "percent spot-on" and "percent totally wrong" should be included in promotional material for psychic services, just like food labelling, etc. However, for long-lived prognostication services (psychic or financial), you’d need some weighting rule.

    Actually, fortune tellers who advertise are showing their lack of capability. If any good, they’d simply ring up a prospect and say "you were just about to contact a psychic service, and here I am!"

    And perhaps financial services offering predictions should be subject to gaming industry regulations, perhaps even with similar tax takes by governments!

  2. Oh, on typing louder:
    <font size="+8">blah</font&gt
    like THIS

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