Last Psychic News editor reveals all

Sue FarrowAfter weeks of prevarication during which the fate of Psychic News, the weekly Spiritualist newspaper, has been the subject of debate and conjecture, it now appears that the company that has published it for the past 15 years – Psychic Press (1995) Ltd – is soon to be put into liquidation by its owners, the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU). It is difficult to imagine the impact this questionable decision has had on its loyal employees and particularly its editor, Susan Farrow, who gave up a musical career to take on the responsibility of editing Spiritualism’s flagship publication for over two-and-a-half years. She has maintained a silence about the events surrounding the demise of the newspaper (apart from an editorial in the final issue, published on 24 July) but now the company is on the verge of liquidation I have her permission to publish her version of events, given to me in the past 24 hours. She has now been made redundant and is free to talk. They will shock most Spiritualists who assume that the SNU has the best interests of the movement and of its employees at heart. If the SNU wishes to take issue with any of Sue’s statements, this column is open for them to do so. Text in bold italics are my questions to Sue.

PN has apparently had financial problems for some time, but last year it increased the number of pages. Whose idea was that and how was the decision justified in view of the financial situation?

Until late 2009 I was not allowed to attend board meetings or see accounts, so I had no personal knowledge of any financial problems afflicting Psychic News (PN). That said, throughout most of its 78-year history PN has had financial difficulties of one kind or another. As you know from personal experience, Roy, the legendary Maurice Barbanell [one of PN’s founders and first editor] was forced to go cap in hand to the likes of Arthur Findlay and Hannen Swaffer on a number of occasions to beg for extra money to keep PN afloat. It’s nothing new. We Spiritualists are a strange lot. Other religions support their flagship newspaper heart and soul and put money behind it, but for some reason we don’t. To me, that’s a tragedy and says a lot about our apologetic mindset.

The idea for the extra pages came jointly from me and PN‘s assistant editor Paul Brett. We felt strongly that the 12-page format of Psychic News was too flimsy. It didn’t allow us to include anything more than basic, rather superficial news coverage, a few readers’ letters and the occasional brief feature. It wasn’t enough. We needed to cover meaty issues of Spiritualist philosophy, history and debate, interviews and so on, and the shorter format could not accommodate those things.

We put this problem to David Bruton, then our executive director, early in 2009, and he accepted that there was a need to expand coverage. Funding, of course, was a problem, and we considered various options. We needed £10,000 to fund the extra pages for a year and could not find it out of regular income. So it was decided that I would approach a well-known Spiritualist charity. In the event I had no need to, because within 48 hours of our meeting David Bruton telephoned me to say that the Arthur Findlay College would donate £5,000 to support our expansion for an initial six-month period. We received almost unanimously positive feedback about the new expanded paper. The next six-month period was funded by a private donor.

When were you told that PN would have to close?

That’s the $64,000 question.

On 4 May we were told that the company was in bad shape. On 13 May we received a memo telling us it was still a going concern and it was “business as usual” concerning subscriptions, advertising and book sales. On 22 May the board voted to liquidate the company. I was present and was instructed not to tell other staff members, with one exception. On 2 June our chequebooks were removed from the office. On 12 June the SNU’s National Executive Committee (NEC) ratified the liquidation of the company. I was then told that we would cease trading on 31 July. However, on the evening of 13 June news of the planned closure leaked out and I received an e-mail telling me that the staff must now be informed of immediate liquidation. I dreaded having to do this. It was not my job, it was the job of management. But… on 14 June I received yet another e-mailed instruction, headed: “Hold the Front Page we have a reprieve. PN is to receive a donation of £10,000.” Within hours that “donation” had been reduced to £5,000. It was a horrendous roller coaster ride of a weekend – one I shall never forget. That kind of up-and-down uncertainty messes with your head after a while.

Following these dramatic and stressful developments we had many an informal staff meeting, trying to work out what was going on. We just couldn’t understand the off/on approach. I expressed multiple concerns to the executive director, in e-mails and phone calls over the following weeks. Above all, staff members were concerned about taking money from the public when the situation appeared so uncertain. My team was left in an untenable position, taking a constant stream of calls from concerned subscribers and advertisers, yet frequently having no clear instructions on what to say to them. We were finally made redundant on Friday 20 August – a heart-breaking day for us all. To the eleventh hour we had hoped for a reprieve because we knew talks were going on with JV Trust. The company had also been in talks with another potential buyer and liquidation had been put on hold during negotiations. We had been told our employment had been extended to 14 August. Then, we were instructed to work to 21 August. It’s impossible to describe the stress and uncertainty this has caused us all, but now the uncertainty is over and the independent Psychic News is dead.

Was there ever any discussion about trying to find financial support from other sources within the movement?

Along with the whole editorial team, I have been excluded from most of the discussions about PN‘s future, so I can’t make any informed comment. Everything has been shrouded in secrecy. I do know that a working party was set up in April to examine the future of PN. To the best of my knowledge its members were David Bruton, Duncan Gascoyne, Mark Bradley and Andrew Hadley. David and Mark are directors of Psychic Press, but the other two directors, Cissie Shaw and Lynda Bradley, were apparently excluded from the working party – strange when you consider that it’s those four directors who have legal responsibility for the company. My understanding – albeit anecdotal – is that the working party had two or three meetings and consulted an employment specialist and at least one liquidation expert. I can only say that, to the best of my knowledge, the SNU made no attempt whatsoever to solicit financial support from any Spiritualist organisation or individual. On the contrary, they seem to have done everything in their power to keep our difficulties quiet. I can’t understand that. PN is, or was, the whole movement’s mouthpiece, not a parish magazine for the SNU.

You were asked to produce a plan that would take the newspaper forward. What solutions did you suggest?

Yes, David Bruton asked me to come up with a plan for the future. This request was made at the Psychic Press board meeting on 22 May this year, which I attended on an ex-officio basis at the invitation of the new executive director, Mark Bradley, who had been appointed in August 2009 following David Bruton’s decision to step down. As I’ve already said, at that meeting the board voted to liquidate the company but David Bruton stated that I and one other staff member would work on a relaunched PN. We all agreed that a modernisation of format would be needed for future viability and David Bruton intimated that the working party’s preference was for a monthly hard-copy magazine and possibly a fortnightly internet issue as well. I did not disagree with that. At that same meeting an offer from the Spiritual Truth Foundation (STF) was put on the table. The STF was willing to fund a marketing initiative for the paper, provided it remained editorially independent. I have no idea whether that offer was ever explored in more detail.

How much of PN’s problem is due to reader apathy and how much to a lack of good business judgment and planning by the SNU?

That’s hard to assess. It seems to me that, though large sections of our movement are passionate about Spiritualism, some elements are increasingly apathetic, not only in terms of whether or not they read PN, or indeed any other publication, but in terms of a general zeal for the promotion of the breathtaking reality of survival and communication beyond death.

Regarding business judgment, I’m no expert, but I have certainly wondered why those in charge of finances did not pick up on our apparent difficulties more promptly. It’s the job of management to keep a close watch on the money side of things. It was also management’s responsibility to ensure that PN was properly marketed. PN has never had a proper marketing budget. You can have the best product in the world, but if no one sees it in the shops it’s hardly going to sell like hot cakes. I raised this issue at a board meeting in March but no action was taken. I also raised the possibility of getting PN back into mainstream newsagents and other outlets. The board received this suggestion positively, but nothing was done about it.

What comments would you like to make about the way in which PN and its closure have been handled?

After five months of unremitting stress and uncertainty, I think it’s probably fair to say that my comments would be unprintable. We’ve had so little open communication from management, and the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere has made us all extremely tense. Speaking personally, the worst thing has been the apparent lack of sensitivity and compassion shown to the staff, some of whom have worked for the company for 15 years. Their problems have been made infinitely worse by the almost total lack of concrete information. In my view, things have been handled with a level of ruthlessness more suited to a multi-national company than a religious body.

What do you think of the way in which the SNU has handled the income from people booking seminar and demonstration tickets?

I think it’s been a disgrace. Cheques amounting to almost £4,000 had been received, and knowing that liquidation had been decided upon, I had done my utmost to retain them. But on 2 June a representative of the SNU Trust (our bankers) visited our office and asked the accounts manager to hand over Psychic News’ chequebook. They also requested the handover of all cheques pertaining to the Physical Mediumship event, which they promptly cashed. Obviously, the Trust had been instructed to do this though I do not know by whom. Having no legal training, I can’t comment on whether or not that act was lawful, but in my view it was deeply unethical. I felt a personal responsibility about our planned Physical Mediumship Seminar, since Stewart Alexander, a good friend, had generously agreed to give the séance solely on the basis of raising funds for an independent PN under my editorship. That was his one and only condition and the board were well aware of it. Indeed, I reminded them of it at the meeting on 22 May. In other words, the directors knew there was no possibility of the séance going ahead unless that condition was met.

What will you miss most about editing PN?

It would take me an entire interview to answer that. I’m devastated at the demise of the paper. Devastated for our pioneers, particularly those who dedicated their lives to establishing Psychic News. Devastated for the hundreds of readers who have written or phoned us expressing absolute shock that their weekly link to worldwide Spiritualism has disappeared. On a personal level, I have loved every moment I’ve spent editing the paper. Spiritualism is my life and I have counted it a huge privilege and a sacred trust to follow, however imperfectly, in the footsteps of Maurice Barbanell. I shall miss the interaction with our readers and, perhaps above all, the pleasure of working with the fantastic editorial team and our excellent feature writers. The staff have worked their socks off to make PN a lively, interesting read, and have been rewarded with redundancy. The SNU is not even paying us redundancy money. We’ve been told to apply to the government. The staff deserved better.

In my view, the SNU has behaved appallingly in regard to Psychic News, its readers, subscribers, advertisers and staff. In saying that, I want to make it known that their most respected figurehead and honorary president, Minister Eric Hatton, has fought with all his might to support and protect the paper, and no words would be adequate to express my thanks, and those of other staff members, for all he has done.

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