Academic freedom and censorship, Governance

The Mess We Are In (Revisited).

David Pilgrim writes…

A few months have now past since my first post. In the most recent edition of The Psychologist, the current President speaks confidently about the need to reduce barriers to our ‘profession’ (sic).  It might seem like a semantic quibble, but the Divisions of the BPS represent forms of profession, but the Sections do not, nor do the open and inclusive Regional Groups. I continue to be a member of both the Division of Clinical Psychology and the History and Philosophy Section, which I recently chaired, and so understand the conceptual distinction in practice.  

Eligibility for the BPS is based upon completing a basic higher education in the discipline of psychology. All professional psychologists are in the discipline of psychology but not all those in the discipline of psychology are professional psychologists. Analogously having a degree in law is a necessary, but not a sufficient, basis for being a professional lawyer. 

I start with this semantic argument not to be pernickety but with a larger agenda in mind. The BPS is allegedly a learned society, overseeing a body of knowledge claiming the disciplinary title of ‘Psychology’. This distinguishes it from other nearby disciplines, such as sociology, philosophy, economics or anthropology, all of which have much to say, quite legitimately, about human experience and conduct. Its charitable status rests upon this assumption of a circumscribed disciplinary authority.

Academic freedom and editorial independence

Many members may not be aware that all the publications produced by the BPS are regulated by its central office and its generally anonymous employees, who are typically not psychologists. Apart from The Psychologist being ‘the magazine of The British Psychological Society’ (words printed every month on its inner cover) its editor is an employee of the Society.  Although the various editors of publications from the Divisions, Sections and Interest Groups are not paid for their work, they must still comply with directives from the BPS office. Copy is checked by the latter and comments and edits made, which may at times over-ride the editorial independence of each. 

Unaware of this simple fact, and maybe with a fingers-crossed blind faith in a learned society unconditionally protecting academic freedom of expression, most members may simply believe the BPS does indeed ensure academic probity. However, as I found out over a year ago (and this was my contribution of a case study sent to the Charity Commission alluded to in my original posting) deliberate decisions are made on a routine basis that over-ride editorial independence. Those are made by unnamed employees of the Society. At times, editors are also instructed to post viewpoints issued by the central office. 

These insights emerged after I had written a piece for the ethics column of the Forum of the Division of Clinical Psychology about the philosophical contestation of sex and gender. This led to interference from the BPS office and the editor being censured after it went into print. The most egregious infringement was when a follow up piece from me was accepted for publication by the editor of the Ethics Column, but it was simply spiked by the BPS office. 

This piece (this, I promise, is true and of course an irony) was about the ethics of freedom of expression, in which I explored some current implications of the legacy of J.S. Mill. At first, I was told by the BPS that it was delayed because of Covid-19. On its continued non-appearance, I made a formal complaint. Eventually, the complaints team told me that it had not been agreed for publication at all because of its poor quality. This raises an intriguing question – what qualifications does the Complaints Team have to judge the academic standard of a scientific paper? Their role is to judge the behaviour of individual members of the Society not the quality of an individual piece of work. As all of us now know, from experiencing a range of frustrated and frustrating complaints, the complaints team is a buffer and shield for decision-makers above them. They pass on messages and rulings and those actually making these decisions, with their tailored and prescribed text, are generally not identifiable. This really is not a fair way for ordinary employees of the Society to be treated by those above them in salary and status. When I asked for further clarification about the decision my email was ignored. 

A full copy of the article will be posted on the blog shortly [Administrator’s note added 07 February 2021 – now available here]. Reporting this experience is neither special pleading nor sour grapes. It is simply an illustration of the failure of the BPS to understand that if it is a learned society, as it claims to be, then it should be obliged to respect academic freedom. If it cannot then it is being hypocritical and not fulfilling the expectations of either its members or the general public. Currently it condones censorship but that is only one of several processes, which we are coming across reflecting an opaque and unaccountable bureaucracy.

Is the BPS acting in the public interest?

Turning to the implications of this for public protection, since we started this blog a few lessons have been learned about the degree of constraint being imposed on academic freedom and the skewing of discourse in favour of some vested interests and not others. Other postings on the blog have highlighted the scandal of the closure of the Law and Memory group.  This is outrageous.  

The current archived report was biased in favour of one experimentalist lobby favouring the False Memory position. Anyone who knows this field now is aware of the evidence of the impact of child sexual abuse upon current and prospective mental health. That clinical and epidemiological research should now be considered fully and in the round, alongside experimental findings, in order to challenge the degree of confidence we might have in trying to extrapolate from the closed system of the laboratory to the open system of human life. For an update see here.

A second example is the complete lack of response in relation to multi-signed letters to the CEO about moves to allow prescribing rights for psychologists and concerns about the highly biased 2019 ‘BPS Guidelines for Psychologists Working with Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity’.  No reply was received to either of these letters and radio silence still prevails today, despite prompts. Is this what a membership organisation, which is supposed to be a learned society, should really look like? Seriously?

A failure to properly advise practitioners?

A final recent example of distorted priorities in BPS publications is the notable appearance, within a day of the game-changing ruling from the Judicial Review on the Kiera Bell case on December 1st 2020, of a defiant piece in The Psychologist. It was not from a BPS member but from a representative of a trans activist organisation, not even from the UK, scorning the new unanimous ruling from the British judges. This piece was very well written and clearly editorially polished over many weeks of collaboration. The editor subsequently confirmed, when asked, that collaboration.

Was this a balanced way of reporting the new legal context, which has been created by the Judicial Review and the international legal precedent it now set? Should The Psychologist, which proclaims itself as ‘The Magazine of the British Psychological Society’, have a duty to comprehensively investigate and report the likely implications of the ruling now for clinical and counselling psychologists?  This is now law – not an opinion – which will remain current until such time as it is changed. 

This casual indifference to the new legal context was mirrored in the half-hearted way in which the BPS itself was content not to bother reviewing immediately its problematic and highly criticised policy on gender noted above. They have parked a re-visit of this document until the appeal hearing of the Judicial Review is heard in March. If the appeal fails (which is highly likely given the December 1st judgment was unanimous), it might then go to the Supreme Court. Will the BPS stall at that point as well, kicking any need for a proper review of this flawed and politicised document well into the long grass?  In the meantime, what advice will it be offering to psychologists working in this highly controversial part of mental healthcare?

Learning points to date

What we have learned in the past few months is the following.

  • Senior members of the Society (elected or unelected) evade accountability by two main methods when approached with concerns from ordinary members.  First, they may simply ignore emails. Second, they may turn pressing concerns about policy matters, implicating public protection, into a complaint to be passed around like a multi-wrapped hot potato in a game of musical chairs. What comes out of that Kafkaesque process, and at what speed, is anyone’s guess, case by case. Whether an outcome even makes sense, common or otherwise, is also important: witness my censored article and the misleading and unfounded rationale for it being spiked. 
  • The Society has no meaningful control over ethical regulation of matters psychological, whether that is in relation to members not on the HCPC register or in relation to the ethics of research. Another irony amongst many is that members may well have received an email recently promoting a course on ethics for psychologists. This is in a context in which those running the Society seem to have lost any appreciation of the meaning of the word for their own conduct and the risks that unaccountable power always entail. Witness their evasiveness and willingness to condone censorship. We will be addressing the role and functioning of the Ethics Committee in future posts.

We can only report what we know in good faith, trying, ever hopeful, to model for the BPS how to ‘do openness’. We do not know why the Finance Director left so suddenly and why this was not reported to the membership publicly, just before Christmas. We do not know why the CEO is not ‘in his office’ and when and if he might return and why ordinary members have had no update on this matter. We do not know if the sham of a Board of Trustees, with its proven conflicts of interests and its lack of outsiders to ensure true public scrutiny, will eventually collapse from its own contradictions. We also do not know what the Charity Commission will do with the information we have supplied to them in our dossier about these serious matters of poor governance. Justice can be slow and maybe slow justice is no justice. However, those contributing to this blog will continue their work, even in the face of being ignored or intimidated. We are not going away.  

3 thoughts on “The Mess We Are In (Revisited).”

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