By Sue Farrow.
With enormous delight and pleasure I can confirm that Psychic News, Spiritualism’s most famous and iconic voice, silenced for so long by the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), is to speak its truth again. Many readers will by now be aware that the J.V. Trust has succeeded in its long-running and complex battle to secure the resurrection of Psychic News. On October 4, it became the new owner of the paper and its world-renowned archive – a large and unique collection of historical material relating to all aspects of Spiritualism. A new company – Psychic Press Ltd – was formed shortly afterwards and was incorporated on October 11.
J.V.’s chairman, Minister Eric Hatton, supported by his fellow trustees Hugh and Margaret Davis, has fought tirelessly to save the paper whose legendary founding editor Maurice Barbanell was a personal friend. Years earlier, Eric had given Barbanell an assurance that he would do all in his power to ensure that Psychic News would continue as an independent voice for the Spiritualist movement.
In honouring that promise, Eric has found himself in the unenviable and often painful position of opposing the SNU, an organisation to which he has devoted almost seven decades of service, and of which he is still honorary president. Those of us who have witnessed at close quarters the toll this has taken on Eric, now 85 years old and in frail health, have at the same time witnessed a powerful and moving demonstration of the importance of principle over personal considerations.
So, what led to this extraordinary and completely unnecessary state of affairs?
Writing on the wall
In March 2010 a routine Psychic Press (1995) Ltd (PP) board meeting was held. The accounts showed a small loss but this was no great surprise to the directors in the context of the deepest world recession in living memory. After all, even the Guardian, Times, Telegraph and Express were suffering a decline in readership, newspapers understandably being seen as non-essential items when food, rent and mortgages were at stake.
The first whisper of trouble came in April 2010 when, quite by chance, I discovered that the SNU had convened a “working party” to consider the future of Psychic News. This information was deemed strictly confidential and was not officially shared with me or other staff members for some time. Neither, astonishingly, was it shared with at least one of the directors of PP. During this period, a source close to the SNU’s National Executive Committee (NEC) confided to me that secrecy had been imposed so that the SNU could retain “the element of surprise”. People might reasonably ask why an organisation dedicated to the promotion of “The Brotherhood of Man” would want to spring an unpleasant “surprise” on anybody.
Offers of support
In late April, the J.V. Trust offered a significant sum of money to PP’s chairman David Bruton (now SNU president) to support Psychic News through the tough times of recession. The trustees believed that, though it was desirable for the paper to make a profit, its primary purpose was as a mouthpiece for Spiritualism. David Bruton rejected the trust’s offer. At the same time, the Spiritual Truth Foundation (STF) offered money to fund a marketing campaign for the paper. This, too, was rejected. The reasons for rejection were not easy for outsiders to grasp. The funds offered were in excess of PP’s debts, which at that time were modest.
In early May 2010 staff were told that the company was in bad shape, but on May 13 we received a memo stating that it was still “a going concern” and we were to conduct “business as usual”. A further PP board meeting was held on May 22 – a mere nine days later – so that David Bruton could present directors with the working party’s recommendations. Prime among these was that PP should be placed in liquidation.
I was present at this meeting and was instructed not to tell other staff members of the decision to liquidate the company, with one exception – Paul Brett, then assistant editor of Psychic News. There was a reason for this: David Bruton made a number of statements at that meeting, most of which were minuted by the SNU’s general secretary, Charles Coulston, and one of which directly affected Paul.
Key among these statements was that the working party had recommended that Psychic News should become an internet-only publication. However, the minutes recorded that “the chairman … thought they had to retain some form of physical paper. Mr Hadley [Andrew Hadley, then a relative newcomer to the upper echelons of the SNU, and member of the working party] and he had met with an insolvency expert and it [liquidation] could be done painlessly. If they continued Psychic News they would make the staff redundant except for Ms Farrow and Paul Brett, which would mean redundancy payments of some £30,000, otherwise they would wind up and the government would make the redundancy payments. They could take the book sales into the Union [PP (95) also published books, including reprinting classic Spiritualist volumes – a profitable operation], which would save on accountancy fees. The Union would have to buy the assets back, which would be at a considerably knock-down price.”
In the weeks following this meeting, Paul Brett and I met with David Bruton and also with Mark Bradley, then executive director of PP. Throughout these meetings, and during a number of related phone calls, there was a clear assumption that we would both continue in employment. At David Bruton’s request we produced a plan for the future of Psychic News, and presented it to him by the date he specified.
We never heard another word, save for the fact that Paul Brett was subsequently phoned by the SNU’s Vice-President (spiritual), Minister Judith Seaman, and invited to work with her and another NEC member to produce a publication. She assured him that funding was available for the project, though did not specify whether she was making the offer on behalf of the SNU or in a private capacity. Paul, who has worked on PN for fifteen years, declined the offer as he believed he had been promised employment with the new Psychic News after the liquidation. The PN team was not unreasonably left wondering whether a SNU in-house version of Psychic News had in fact been the agenda all along.
June brought increasing uncertainty for the already stressed staff, particularly when PP’s cheque books were removed from the Psychic News office without warning or explanation. A few days later I was told that the company would cease trading on July 31. At this point, though vague rumours were circulating, the international Spiritualist community was for the most part completely unaware of the SNU’s plan to kill off PN.
However, on the evening of June 13, things changed dramatically. News of the planned closure was leaked at a public event and within hours I received an urgent email instructing me to inform the staff of immediate liquidation. I dreaded having to do this to my colleagues. It was not my job, it was the job of management. A little less than twelve hours later this instruction was revoked and I received yet another email, headed: “Hold the front page we have a reprieve.” The situation was becoming farcical.
Following these bizarre developments we had many an informal staff meeting, trying to work out what was going on. I expressed multiple concerns to the executive director in emails and phone calls during the weeks that followed. My team was left in an impossible position, fielding a constant stream of calls from concerned subscribers and advertisers, yet frequently having no clear instructions on what to say to them. Staff members were deeply concerned about the morality of taking money from the public when the situation appeared so uncertain.
Breakdown of negotiations
On August 4, 2010, hopes were raised when a SNU delegation consisting of David Bruton, Andrew Hadley, Charles Coulston and assistant general secretary Graham Hewitt met with trustees of the J.V. Trust and their then lawyer, Margaret Neville. The trustees intended to purchase Psychic News and its assets “lock, stock and barrel” and to relaunch the paper as soon as possible.
Sadly, hope was to be short-lived, as negotiations broke down irretrievably following the SNU’s staggering revelation that, having shut down the most famous title in Spiritualism, they were not prepared to sell it or its archive, nor were they willing to sell other key assets of Psychic Press (1995) Ltd, which included Maurice Barbanell’s desk and the world-famous painting of his legendary communicator, Silver Birch, by the French artist Marcel Poncin. There being nothing else worth buying, the J.V. Trust withdrew.
The Union claimed that these assets belonged to the SNU, not Psychic Press (1995) Ltd, even though the minutes of the company’s Board meeting on 22 May (referred to above) made it clear that the Union would have to buy those assets if it were to continue publishing Psychic News as an SNU publication.
Liquidation had been put on hold during the negotiations, and our employment extended to August 14. Then, out of the blue, we were instructed to work until August 21 pending talks with another interested party. The identity of that alleged party has never been disclosed, but, if they existed, their reaction must surely have been the same as the J.V. Trust’s: if there was no Psychic News for sale, and no archive either, what was the point of talking? The burning question on many people’s lips was why the SNU would shut down the world’s best-known Spiritualist publication, yet refuse to let anyone else buy it or revive it. It made no sense at all, unless they had their own plans for the title.
In September 2010, PP was put into liquidation with London-based firm, Berley’s. At a subsequent creditors’ meeting, those who were owed money from advance subscriptions, advertising and book sales, and had travelled to London for the purpose of hearing how much, if anything, they could expect to be repaid, sat stunned as the meeting opened with an announcement that PP had been withdrawn from liquidation. No satisfactory explanation was given for this extraordinary turn of events, but a senior SNU figure intimated to one creditor that the sudden about-turn had been caused by the possibility of a £20,000 bill from Berley’s, something the NEC of the time were reportedly not prepared to countenance.
It was around this time that Paul Brett and I were summoned to Stansted for an appeal hearing, arising out of our respective claims for unfair dismissal. David Bruton chaired the appeals panel and we were each given the opportunity to put our case. At the close of the meeting we were told that the panel’s decision would be notified to us in writing. Imagine our surprise when, a couple of weeks later, a letter arrived informing us that no claim against the company was possible, since PP was to be placed in liquidation again – this time with another London firm, Marsh Hammond and Partners.
A creditors’ meeting was convened, and a Committee of Inspection formed to oversee the work of the liquidator on behalf of PP’s creditors. It was at this point that the fortunes of Psychic News were to take a dramatic turn for the better.
The Spiritual Truth Foundation (STF), previous owners of Psychic Press, had gifted the famous title and its assets to the SNU in 1995 as a complete package to ensure the continued publication of Psychic News as an independent voice for the Spiritualist movement. The rationale was that by moving the operation to Stansted the newspaper would become economically viable once again, which it did in time. After all, the SNU exists to “promote knowledge of the religion, philosophy and science of Spiritualism” and says it “unites Spiritualists throughout the world”.
A new company – Psychic Press (1995) Ltd – was set up to hold the assets and publish Psychic News. The STF trustees, including Geoffrey Craggs, Eric Hatton, Roy Stemman and myself, were convinced that Psychic News and its assets were therefore the property of Psychic Press (1995) Ltd, and not of the SNU. The new liquidators accepted that ownership was in dispute and issued a statement that discussions would take place. On behalf of the STF, Roy Stemman sought an independent legal opinion, which supported our contention.
At a subsequent and memorable meeting, held at the office of the liquidator’s lawyers, it was ruled that all disputed assets, including the title Psychic News, belonged to PP. They were not, and never had been, the property of the SNU. The tide had turned and things were on the move at last. The liquidator advertised the assets for sale, the J.V. Trust put in the highest bid, and the real talking began. There were many obstacles to overcome, but the trustees stuck to their guns, and, together with their excellent team of lawyers, finally achieved the result we had all longed for.
The human cost
Whatever the reasons for the SNU’s decision to silence Psychic News after almost 80 years of proud service to Spiritualism, there can be no doubt that their actions have caused immense damage:
- Damage to SNU members in terms of huge expenditure on two liquidations which could easily have been avoided by a quick sale to the J.V. Trust in August 2010
- Damage to advertisers, subscribers, loyal readers and employees, who would have been greatly advantaged by a speedy resurrection of the paper
- Damage to the Psychic News brand, which has now been out of circulation for more than fifteen months
Over the past two decades the J.V. Trust has donated in the region of £2,000,000 to ensure that Arthur Findlay’s former home at Stansted has been enhanced to its present standard. There is barely a corner of the magnificent house and grounds that has not benefited from the trust’s generosity. Numerous SNU churches have also received financial help from the trust. Yet the SNU leadership apparently considered J.V. an unsuitable owner of Psychic News, and preferred to hang on to the famous title and its assets themselves.
How much hardship to so many people could have been avoided if the SNU had not been intent on claiming the spoils? With the best will in the world it’s hard to see any sign of spirituality in their actions.
A new era
However, we all make mistakes and, as the SNU’s seventh principle has it, eternal progress is open to every human soul. In the interests of fairness it’s important to record that SNU president David Bruton, speaking at this year’s annual general meeting, conceded that mistakes had been made in handling the closure of Psychic News.
It’s time to leave the past behind and look to new beginnings. Thanks to the J.V. Trust, Psychic News is now more independent than at any time in its history, and its future looks bright. So when, and in what format, will it be back?
Last week we moved into our new offices in Essex and, in addition to unpacking the hundreds of crates and boxes containing our long-lost equipment and records, we are working our socks off to get things up and running again.
For those who prefer to hold a physical copy in their hands, we plan to bring you a fortnightly version of PN in an exciting new magazine format. Readers who are happier with an online version will be able to subscribe to a new web-based PN with all the interactive facilities of SPN, and more. iPhone and iPad users will be able to download an app to enable them to receive PN direct to their devices.
If you’ve lost money as a result of the SNU’s decisions, expect to hear from us within the next month. We won’t be able to reimburse you in hard cash, but we’re devising concessionary schemes to reimburse you in some way for what you’ve lost. If for any reason you don’t hear from us, please write to me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know your situation.
Please bear with us as we work to get the show on the road again. It’s a challenging job but we are loving every minute of it! Though we can’t absolutely guarantee it, we hope to launch the new Psychic News just before Christmas. In the meantime, you can help us enormously by spreading the word that we’re on our way back.
If you have strong feelings about what you’d like to see (or not like to see) in the new Psychic News, don’t just keep them to yourself – tell us! You can write to me at the email address above. And one more thing: you’ll be pleased to hear that there will be no premium-rate phone-line adverts in your new PN!
The J.V. Trust has given Spiritualists, and all who are interested in a spiritual way of life, an amazing opportunity to be part of a whole new venture. It’s a hugely exciting prospect, at a time when the general public’s interest in exploring spiritual matters has never been greater. Together, we really can make the world a better place.
My thanks can never be adequate for those thousands of people around the world who have contacted us over the past year and more, to express astonishment and huge disappointment at the sudden closure of Spiritualism’s most respected publication. You know who you are, but you will never know just how much your support has strengthened us during extremely challenging times.
Please continue to support us as we go forward. If Psychic News is to resume its role as the independent voice of Spiritualism, we will need your wholehearted backing. My dream is of a world in which all who know the truth of survival will work together with a single purpose. It matters not if we are Christian Spiritualists, SNU Spiritualists, Muslim Spiritualists, Jewish Spiritualists or any other kind of Spiritualist – we have one truth in common: we know we can never die. Life is eternal, communication between this world and the next is a reality, and our job is to make this life-changing knowledge available to everyone.
The difficult events of the past eighteen months must now be consigned to the past, and with the help of the spirit world Psychic News will move forward into a much brighter chapter. That said, I can’t begin to tackle the many challenges ahead without first recording my personal thanks to a number of very special people who have provided me with huge support and played a pivotal role in bringing us to this happy outcome.
Roy Stemman – who was assistant editor of Psychic News, working with the newspaper’s founder and editor, Maurice Barbanell, for eight years – has offered me constant encouragement and friendship, in addition to his vital contribution in helping to establish the true ownership of PN and its assets. I’m delighted that he has accepted my invitation to become the new chairman of Psychic Press.
SNU members Geoff Griffiths, Al and Geoff Potts, were among a number who spoke out publicly when others felt unable to. Jim Warwood – accomplished businessman and financial expert – generously drew up a detailed financial plan for the future development and success of PN.
Eminent Spiritualist historian Leslie Price, and Geoffrey Craggs of the Spiritual Truth Foundation, provided loyal support throughout the liquidation process. Hugh and Margaret Davis – J.V. trustees – stood by me with great kindness through all the twisting highways and byways of the past fifteen months. Paul Brett has offered support on many levels and has generously worked without any payment on Spirit of PN. My friend Margaret Wood, a Roman Catholic, but greatly sympathetic to matters psychical, gave limitless practical help and support throughout a battle that has stretched me to the limit.
Gerard Smith, who gave me a lengthy private sitting before anyone other than the SNU working party knew of the plan to close down Psychic News, and warned me in detail of all that would transpire, and has transpired, before an ultimately favourable outcome, not only made his unparalleled mediumship available to me, but showed me patient friendship and wisdom when it was most needed.
Above all, my great friend Minister Eric Hatton stood shoulder to shoulder with me during exceedingly difficult times, at enormous cost to himself. From him I have learned the most valuable lesson of all: that there is a greater purpose to Spiritualism than any one of us can see or imagine; that it is bigger by far than any single organisation. Integrity and courage, honesty and unwavering loyalty to one’s principles, whatever they may cost us in personal terms, are the defining features of what it means to live life as a Spiritualist.