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Free Speech and Free Trade: Regulating Psychics and Other Spiritual Services

April 24, 2008. According to the Sunday Mirror, last year Britons spent £40 million on online, phone and TV psychic services. That's probably a drop in the bucket compared to what they spent on church membership. If churches advertised that they could guarantee eternal life or stress-free exorcisms, would they be violating the law in the UK? Maybe.

The United Kingdom has a watchdog agency called the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) that has the power to limit freedom of speech and freedom of trade. A recent news article described how the ASA went after the Doordarshan-India channel, which is “part of the diverse Rayat Group, which has interests in India and the UK in education, travel, retail and media.” It seems the TV channel ran an advertisement that ran afoul of the rule that states:

With very limited exceptions, advertisements for products or services concerned with (a) the occult or (b) psychic practices are not acceptable.

The rule states: "‘the occult’ includes, for example, invocation of spirits, tarot and attempts to contact the dead or demons" and "psychic practices include astrology, horoscopes, palmistry etc."

Exceptions are made for some tarot ads and for newspaper horoscopes that are for entertainment only. The rules also state that:

Products or services concerned with exorcism may not be advertised since they are concerned with the occult in the sense of being intended to counter it.

The justification for these restrictions on freedom of speech and trade are given in terms of the obligation of government to protect the young and "viewers who are emotionally vulnerable" from harm by "potentially harmful and coercive groups," and to protect "inter-group relations" in a pluralist society. Specifically, the ASA states that these rules are made:

to protect the young and safeguard the right of parents to take responsibility for their children’s moral and philosophical education without undue interference;

to protect viewers who are emotionally vulnerable for personal reasons, such as sickness or bereavement;


to deny the persuasive power and emotional impact of television advertising to potentially harmful or coercive groups.

If television is such a powerful medium for persuasion and manipulation of the young and the emotionally vulnerable, one wonders why churches are allowed to own television stations at all. In the U.S., religious groups are not barred from owning TV networks. Pat Robertson's been running his Christian Broadcasting Network since 1961 and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker started the PTL Network to promote their own version of religious chicanery.* After Jim went to prison, Jerry Falwell took over PTL and continued making claims much more extravagant than any made on the Doordarshan-India channel.

The ad taken to task by the ASA was in Hindi and stated:

Pandit Bharatraj Shastri was an expert in “palmistry, birth kundali (horoscopes), vastu expert (lifestyle expert), marriage life, marriage of your choice, trouble in business, dissatisfied at work, affect [sic] of black magic, family problems, whatever the problem”.

The on-screen text mentioned a phone number over background graphics of a palm, Lord Ganesh, the moon, the earth and horoscope and face-reading symbols.

DD-India added a disclaimer at the end of the advertisement stating “Rayat Television Enterprises Ltd does not take any responsibility & liability for any advice given, nor does it necessarily subscribe to its views”.

The disclaimer is irrelevant. It should go without saying that television stations don't necessarily advocate what they advertise. Stations run the ads because they want to make money, not because they want to promote any particular product or service. Of course, if a church owns the television station, then one might assume that at least the ads promoting businesses run by the church itself were placed there not only to make money but to promote the church as well.

This is not the first time a Pandit has been in trouble with the ASA. Last October, Venus TV ran an ad featuring Pandith Sri Guru Poojya Vijay Sharmaji that stated:

Meet world famous astrologer and palm reader from generations. Pandith is an expert in astrology. He can tell you about marriage, employment, family, spousal conflict, social business, financial problems, citizenship, health, wealth and exam studies. Combines the power of palmistry, clairvoyance, astrology and face-reading to give you a more complete reading. Please contact Sri Guru Poojya Vijay Sharmaji ....

On-screen text added that Pandith is an "Expert in Astrology with 99% Accurate Results in Palmistry and also Prediction of Horoscope ... Born Gifted with Spiritual Powers let him help you to Solve your Problems with his Expert knowledge." The text was placed over background graphics of the solar system and tarot cards.

The ASA ruled that the ad violated the rules noted above regarding the occult and misleading advertising, and must not be shown again.

Obviously, these rules restrict free speech and free trade, but they are justified say those who make the rules because they are needed to protect a certain segment of the population from harm. They are meant to protect the young, the emotionally vulnerable, and the gullible. These occult ads are not forbidden on the ground that they are promoting nonsense or are patently false. False or nonsensical speech is allowed as long as it is not deceptive or likely to harm those who are deemed to need protection.

The panderers of psychic woo in Britain will now have to face another hurdle. Not only must they not advertise psychic rubbish on the telly, they must back up their claims in ads, posters, business cards, etc., with evidence that what they claim is true. Otherwise, they must let the consumer know that they can't guarantee the results.

Mediums may now have to issue disclaimers such as "this is a scientific experiment, the results cannot be guaranteed" before making contact with the other side.*

Legislating psychic rubbish goes back to the 18th century in Britain. In 1735, the Witchcraft Act ended the practice of executing witches. Those proclaiming supernatural powers were henceforth to be punished with imprisonment or a fine. The Witchcraft Act was superseded by the Fraudulent Mediums Act in 1951, but the new law was rarely used.* That Act is to be repealed next month and replaced by the European Union's Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. No longer will fraudulent intention have to be proved to convict psychic peddlers. The psychic will have to prove she did not mislead or coerce credulous consumers.*

The new regulations provide for a range of civil and criminal penalties, including two years in prison in the most serious cases.

I suppose it won't be long before someone sues the Anglican Church for misleading credulous consumers. I'm not predicting this, of course, and I hope I don't mislead anyone into thinking that churches are vulnerable under the new law. That is not something I know, nor do I claim to be able to predict how the law will be applied, if it will be applied at all. I am merely speculating and what I say here should be understood to be for entertainment purposes only.

In any case, the psychics are not going to wait to see how the new law is applied. They have started their own organization, the Spiritual Workers Association. That's right. The psychics in the UK are now an organized religion, sort of. They say they're doing spiritual work and are part of the spiritualist tradition. It's too bad those other prostitutes, the ones who sell bodily pleasures, don't call themselves spiritual workers instead of sex workers. They could claim that sex is their holy communion and dare the law to touch them.

Samuel Johnson may be right in claiming that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. He should have added: Religion is the first refuge of a scoundrel.

further reading

--Psychics may face regulations that help tell which is witch by John Mangan May 4, 2008


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