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Complainant Name:
Mr Paul McKenna

Clauses Noted: 1

Publication: The People


Mr Paul McKenna, a well known stage hypnotist, complained through his solicitors, Messrs Schilling & Lom of London W1, that an article published in The People on 12 May 1996 headlined "Weatherman in TV trance storm" about a TV programme in which he had appeared three years previously breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code of Practice. The article described how a TV weatherman had vowed never to watch the hypnotist again as he had been left a nervous wreck after the complainant had hypnotised him and convinced him that he had drunk five pints of lager, and was made to impersonate Elvis and forget the number 7 as he appeared to stagger around drunkenly. According to the article, behind the scenes what had started as a joke turned into a nightmare as the weatherman had grabbed hold of a metal pole and was ranting and raving like a madman.

The complainant said that none of the factual statements in the article quoted above were true. The inaccuracies were significant because they were offensive and defamatory, and gave a misleading and distorted account of events some three years previously. His solicitors provided the Commission with a video of the programme together with statements rejecting the newspaper's version of events by Mr McKenna, the weatherman concerned and by the person responsible for researching and directing lifestyle segments for the programme. Further, the complainant pointed out that in the transcript of a conversation between the newspaper and the weatherman, provided by the newspaper, the weatherman said that it [the experience] has not left me traumatised. The complainant also argued that if the Commission was unwilling to rely on the newspapers unnamed source (referred to below), and concluded that the weatherman had no clear recollection of the events concerned, then the statements of Mr McKenna and the researcher should be treated as uncontradicted.

The newspaper denied the allegations. It said that the information that gave rise to the article came from a member of the television crew who, it said, was an eyewitness to the events but whom it declined to identify under the terms of Clause 17 (Confidential sources) of the Code. To support its account of the incident it also produced a transcript and attendance notes of conversations between the weatherman and three people, namely a reporter, a solicitor in its legal department and the solicitors' secretary. It said that the central issue of the complaint was whether or not the weatherman had suffered any adverse effects, either on or off air, as a result of the hypnosis. It claimed that the material it had submitted showed, quite unequivocally, that the weatherman was traumatised by the hypnosis and that he was in a state of panic directly as a result of that hypnosis. Also, the host of the show had informed viewers that they would return to the weatherman later in the show - but they never did. The newspaper felt that it could rely upon that as evidence that the hypnosis had traumatised the weatherman.

No Finding


The Commission noted that although the complainant produced a statement by the weatherman supporting his points, the statement conflicted in certain respects with what the weatherman had told the newspaper on two previous occasions and on which the newspaper relied. In the statements produced by the newspaper the weatherman had said that although he had no recollection of what had happened, he had been informed of what had occurred by other people, in particular the floor staff of the programme (camera and sound crew, etc.). He had apparently had a panic attack and had grabbed or gripped a pillar. He said he had got a bad fright and had taken a day or two to get over it. He was not able to look at Paul McKenna on television in case he got hypnotised. While the complainant agreed that the weatherman had had a panic attck during the course of being hypnotised, he believed the condition was not caused by hypnosis but merely arose coincidentally with it. There was therefore general agreement between the parties that the weatherman became disoriented after being hypnotised, but there was no agreement on the cause or extent and its consequences.

The Commission found this a difficult case to consider, especially as the weatherman's own recollection of the incident was vague and because there were contradictions between the statements recorded by the newspaper (which he had apparently confirmed), and his later statement made for the complainant. The problems were compounded by the fact that the newspaper was relying on an unnamed source, as it was entitled to do under the Code.

The Commission accepted that the newspaper had a basis for some elements of the article following its conversations with the weatherman, and had also relied on its unnamed source for statements such as how the weatherman was ranting and raving like a madman. However, although the newspaper was entitled to withhold details of its source under the terms of the Code of Practice, the Commission did not feel that it could rely on such sources' material to decide the extent and consequences of what had occurred, especially as these were disputed by the complainant and another witness who claimed that the newspaper had grotesquely exaggerated the whole incident. This did not mean, however, that the Commission should thereby treat the complainant's statements as uncontradicted simply because it did not feel it could rely on contrary material as in any way conclusive. In all the circumstances and subject to the points made below, the Commission did not feel able to make a positive finding on the major element of the complaint.

It was agreed that the weatherman had had a panic attack and had become disoriented, that Mr McKenna and others were concerned for him and that he was not brought back on the programme as promised. In the circumstances the Commission did not regard the use of the word "nightmare" as inappropriate. Further, although the use of the phrase "nervous wreck" was an overstrong description to describe the weatherman in the aftermath of his experience, and his feelings about the hypnotist, it was not so inappropriate as to merit censure under the Code.

Regarding the headline, the Commission considered that it involved a play on words which readers of the article would have understood, especially since the fact that the story was some three years old was specifically stated; the Commission did not find that any error or misrepresentation in this regard was significant within the context of the article taken as a whole.

The video evidence showed that the weatherman was hypnotised into believing that he was riding a horse rather than doing the other things mentioned in the story. The Commission did not regard this as a significant inaccuracy meriting censure under the Code in spite of the complainant's contention that, there is a world of difference between someone being asked to imagine that he is on horseback as part of the process of inducing a relaxed state of mind in a subject of hypnosis, and the newspaper account. The Commission noted from the video of the programme that the complainant suggested to the weatherman he should remount his horse, hold the reins tightly and gee the horse up. The Commission saw this not as part of a pre-programme attempt at relaxation, but an on-air attempt to entertain the viewers by making the weatherman act out a ridiculous fantasy. In this respect it was not significantly different in substance to the matters wrongly described in the article.

As to the other assertions that the weatherman went crazy, was "ranting and raving like a madman" and "grabbed .... a metal pole in the TV studio" , for the reasons set out above the Commission had difficulty in coming to a clear view as to what precisely had occurred. However, given its findings in relation to the panic attack, the disorientation and the horse incident, then the failure to bring the weatherman back onto the programme, and the two earlier statements by the weatherman on which the newspaper relied, the Commission did not regard any inaccuracy in these respects as meriting censure under the Code, even if the newspaper had been in breach on any point.

Subject to the points made above the Commission made no positive finding in relation to the main issue of the complaint.


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