Sensing Murder – Series Three

16 07 2008

It’s back!!! I am of course talking about everybody’s favourite show – Sensing Murder. Okay obviously the show is not to absolutely everyone’s taste and it certainly elicits strong responses from both side of the debate on psychic’s ability. It was one of the reasons I was inspired to start posting my views on paranormal and pseudoscience on the Internet. It is therefore a prime candidate for a dedicated article on this blog.

In reviewing the programme and new series I hope to avoid the whole argument over whether the Psychics on the show are genuine or not. All of the main contributors to this blog are hardened veterans of the many heated debates on the Sensing Murder and JREF forums around the lack of hard evidence for the claimed abilities. These discussions boil down to Believers believe because they have seen with their own eyes while Skeptics require proper controlled testing to convince them. The discussion’s generally deteriorates quite quickly into accusations of close mindedness, thrown by protagonists from both sides.

Instead I wish to look at the programme from the point of view of journalistic fairness and balance. Even if the Psychics have the ability they claim they could still be wrong or mistaken in a particular case. Does the show allow room for the audience to make their own mind up or have the makers decided to push a particular agenda and view and then reinforce that as much as possible?

The first two series of Sensing Murder quickly established the formula for the programme. This can best be summarised as Crimewatch lite with a couple of Psychics thrown in to the mix. Essentially a standard 90-minute programme is split into distinct segments. The first part of the show is focused on providing the background of the case and person who was murdered or went missing. Then a recreation of the known facts of what happened is shown, similar to recreations made for Crimewatch.

At this point the paranormal side of the show kicks off. The two psychics, (always two, but not necessarily the same two), are introduced. After a brief run down of the exhaustive search process the programme makers undertook to ensure only the best and most accurate psychics were used for the show they start doing their thing. While this article is not touching upon testing of psychic ability I must admit I would love to get my hands on the raw test data and test protocols for this to see how thorough and controlled this testing actually was.

The Psychics spend the next segment of the programme connecting with the ‘spirit of the murdered or missing person and allowing the audience to get the impression that they have indeed got some connection to a dead person. They then proffer up some possible scenarios about what actually happened. This is often accompanied by a scene visit where the psychics take a field trip to a locale where the crime may have occurred. This last bit is usually not much more than 15 minutes in and hour and a half programme.

Interspersed throughout are interviews with friends and relatives of the deceased. These confirm bit and pieces of the back-story and/or psychic revelations. All of this is held together with the super serious presenting style of Rebecca Gibney, use of eerie and sinister mood music and graphics for dramatic effect, and is topped off with the musings of a private investigator, (Duncan Holland), who the show employs to follow up the ‘leads’ provided by the two Psychics.

So how does the new series structure compare to the previous two? Superficially all the various elements are still there so it could be said that nothing much has changed. The background and recreation of the case, friends and family of the deceased, the two psychics, a field trip, Rebecca, Duncan et al. The producers of the show have obviously decided why mess with a winning formula and you can’t really blame them as it has served them well.

I did notice a few slight differences. The introduction to the programme has been ‘jazzed’ up. There is lots of flashing lights and quick cutting between shots of the Psychics and a recreation of the show tragic topic. Someone on the SM forum described these effects as if the Psychics had magic lights bursting from their eyes. There is also a bit more time ‘bigging’ up the individual psychics, (Sue Nicholson and Kelvin Cruickshank were featured in this particular episode), success outside the show, (TV shows, workshops, etc), and how much more confident they are in their ability since starting on the series. Another small variation from the majority of previous shows was the fact that it was mentioned that the family of the deceased to do the show called in the SM team.

It is probably a good idea to give some of the background of the particular case the episode was featuring. Unlike the majority of the previous shows the case in question didn’t involve either an unsolved murder, (at first glace anyway), or a missing person. The situation being investigated was the case of the death of Blake Stott, a young man who was tragically killed in his new car by a fire late at night sometime in 2006. Police and forensic/fire investigators couldn’t establish any foul motives behind the crime and the current official thinking is that his death was likely the result of an accident. The family disagreed and employed the services of Duncan Holland to investigate the case, (according to this report in the ODT). Mr Holland then recommended the family contact the Sensing Murder team.

Cases on Sensing Murder seem to me to fall into either one of two categories. The first is a straightforward unsolved murder or abduction case. The second category is one in which someone has gone missing or has been killed but there is no definitive evidence of a crime being committed. Examples of this sort of case are those involving Jim Donnelly and also Blake Stott.

On balance there is probably a lot of benefit in profiling the first category of cases on a national television programme like Sensing Murder. Even if the information provided by the psychics doesn’t reveal anything new or useful at least the extra publicity that the show provides might encourage witnesses to come forward with some additional information. The second category of cases has much less to recommend them. This is especially true if the Psychics proffer up a scenario that is controversial and at odds with the known facts of the situation. This is what happened in the Blake Stott case.

It is at this junction that I would like to start to address the shows balance. As stated the case being featured on the show was not a cut and dried situation where we could be confident that foul play of some sort had occurred and the psychics try to provide information about the perpetrator or perpetrators. The official explanation of the Blake Stott case was a tragic accident and hence no one was thought to be directly responsible. This was not what the show led us to believe however with an alternative hypothesis put forward by the both Sue Nicholson and Kelvin Cruickshank that something more sinister had happened.

The rather shocking and controversial revelations was telegraphed pretty early on in the show, in the introduction at the start of the programme, in the numerous teasers before each ad breaks, and in the various rhetorical questions made by Rebecca Gibney asking whether the Psychics had identified some other cause of his death (Hmmmmm, do you think they might have?).

How did the show handle the fact that the Psychics had come up with something seriously at odds with the Police view of the case? Well the show pretty much did all it could to support the hypothesis the Psychics put forward. Not only were the Psychics and their abilities given an awful lot of credibility during the first part of the show and presented as though they might have additional supernatural abilities (such as shooting magical lights from their eyes) but, by using of suitably eerie and sinister mood music and visuals, the audience were made to feel as though something was slightly amiss in the case.

Efforts were made to enhance the credibility of both the show and the Psychics a number of times during the programme. The most obvious way this was done was showing a great number of ‘hits’ Sue and Kelvin got and having Rebecca confirm verbally that they were indeed correct. I counted an impressive amount of factually accurate information provided by the Psychics during the show. In fact I didn’t see anything that looked remotely as though it was wrong or even a guess on their part. There was one moment that I thought they might have shown Kelvin struggling a little with describing what Blake Stott looked like however it soon became apparent that even this was turned into a hit when it was suggested that he couldn’t make out his features because they had been destroyed in the fire.

I suppose it is within the realms of possibility that the Psychics were amazingly accurate. Although I would suggest that it is highly improbably, especially considering some of the reviews their live performances get. I also accept that, given the limited time available in the programme, there is a need to edit what the Psychics are saying so that it is pertinent and fits into the shows time and format but that just highlights that the programme is an unbalanced portrayal of the facts of a case.

Unbalanced is also how I would describe the way the show handled the official explanation for Blake Stott’s death. Doubts were raised about potential accidental causes of the fire in the car. Both the car and the car stereo were brand new, (the implication being they couldn’t possibly have malfunctioned), and it was made clear that Blake did not smoke cigarettes, (Although no mention was made of whether this non smoking also included Cannabis). These rebuttals were reinforced with interview quotes from Blake Stott’s family and friends. Kelvin was especially scathing of the Police investigation of the case, basically accusing it of taking the easy road to get the case closed as soon as possible. No other evidence was proffered to support this accusation.

These may all be valid criticism of the official position but at no time did we get to see someone from an alternative viewpoint from that expressed by the Psychics. Duncan Holland did look to take on the role of presenting the facts of the official case but he was employed much more in confirming whatever the Psychics came up with. Duncan also identified there were potential ‘suspects’ that fitted the general description of the two perpetrators who had started the fire ‘as a joke’ (according to Sue and Kelvin view). Duncan helpfully advised that one of the two had subsequently left the area. The implication seemed to be that his departure and the death of Blake Stott were somehow linked.

Given the controversial nature of the Psychics accusations and the fact that two potentially innocent people were being accused, (if not actually publicly identified); did the programme makers give various parties a right of reply? In short – No they did not.

To be fair though they did mention during the programme that the Police were offered the opportunity to participate and turned it down. The makers to the programme responded to questions about this with the following reply on the Sensing Murder forum –

“Dunedin Area Command ordered Balclutha Police not to take part in Sensing Murder because, as far as police are concerned, Blake’s death was an accident. Police were informed, prior to broadcast, of the psychic’s findings and were given all of the investigator’s research and a copy of the programme in advance. We have ongoing communication with the police over the case.”

However it is not clear why there wasn’t more input from potentially neutral parties such as forensic investigators or local journalists.

I accept that the Police can be incredibly unhelpful and are probably their own worst enemy when it comes to defending their actions. I myself contacted the local Police about the case to ask them what they thought about the allegations made by the Psychics on the show. The response from the Dunedin and Clutha area command was frankly disappointing.

“Police will investigate any new evidence raised in the Sensing Murder programme screened on TV2, said Area Commander: Dunedin & Clutha, Inspector Dave Campbell.

“While this case has been investigated thoroughly, as with any investigation, we are open to examining new evidential information that comes to light,” he said.

At this stage, police have no further comment to make about the programme, Inspector Campbell said.”

What can be said with a high degree of certainty is that Police did not find the additional ‘evidence’ provided by the show compelling enough to warrant the case being reopened immediately. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for the show. So, while sympathising with the Sensing Murder team in their lack of support from Police, it doesn’t really excuse the complete lack of balance in the production of the programme, More of an effort could have been made to present the other side of the debate even without Police buy in.

When it comes down to it does it really matter if the show lacks balance and pushes the view that the Psychic ‘revelations’ are one hundred percent accurate? The show after all is classified as a light entertainment reality show and as TVNZ argued during the recent complaint to the NZ Broadcasting Standard Authority it is ‘not a news, current affairs or factual programme… there was “an expectation in society that programmes about mediums are told from a particular perspective”’.

To an extent this is a fair enough position to take however I would argue that, given the subject matter, an unbalanced show does matter. As stated at the beginning of this article, the programme does elicit strong responses. Whether the makers of the show choose to acknowledge it or not many people are going to blindly accept that a crime has been committed and two individuals in the local area are guilty. As a journalist from the Southland Times said to me the community in question is incredibly small and throwing accusations around like they did can have devastating effects.

The sensitive nature of the subject matter, they are dealing with real events and real people after all, suggests to me that Ninox has a duty of care in their production to at least inform their audience of the dangers of jumping to conclusions about the case. Even if they don’t have the time to present both sides of the debate fairly they can at least downplay some of the emotional manipulation that they engage in.

The makers obviously have a desire for the show to be taken seriously given references to steps they undertook to test and control the Psychic readings, (coupled with how they spun the whole Nigel Latta experience with the show). If they really want to be taken seriously then they should start acting a little more responsibly.

In the interests of fairness and balance I will attempt to get a response to this article from the makers of the show and will post them on the forum if I am successful.