"The Psychologist", Board of Trustees, Expulsion of President-Elect, Governance

The legitimation crisis and a membership denied answers

David Pilgrim posts….

Today, the concept of a ‘legitimation crisis’ can be applied clearly to the BPS. Although explored at length in a book with that title by Habermas (1974), many other social and political scientists have returned to the theme. This is about leadership regimes, which may notionally still retain power, but their strained credibility reflects an imminent or current breakdown in their actual authority. The cabal currently at the centre of the BPS is still in power but its credibility is in rapid decline. It lacks what Eric Fromm, in his book The Sane Society, called ‘rational authority’ and, instead, exercises power on its own terms in order to ward off the stream of criticism warranted. For Fromm this would be an expression of ‘irrational authority’.

On this blog we have been reporting the character and history of this crisis in recent months and each entry, such as this one, is a new take on an unprecedented state of affairs for the Society. The occasional flurry of criticism of rogue celebrity researchers, such as Cyril Burt (Joynson, 1988) or Hans Eysenck (Marks, 2018), barely dented the reputation of the BPS. Similarly, the spat between the Maudsley methodological behaviourists and their scorned psychodynamic colleagues from north of the Thames, in a struggle to control the Medical Section and its journal, led to a temporary closure of its business in 1958 (Pilgrim and Treacher, 1991). These small eruptions of doubt, that all was well in the BPS, pale into insignificance today. We have never seen anything like this, either in living memory or in the literature on the history of British psychology. Those past examples, looked at in the current context, are like comparing a bar room brawl with a military coup. 

In meetings of the Board of Trustees today all of the Presidential triumvirate have gone, so it contains nobody elected from the general membership. Unelected Senior Management Team members now outnumber Trustees from the sub-systems. This trend is now amplified by the Board preventing members electing a replacement for the radically reforming President Elect, after expulsion from the Society, a cue for the next main point.

The public disparagement of Nigel MacLennan

The video released, vilifying the President Elect in advance of his appeal being submitted and heard, is a complete outrage. It offends our normal understanding of natural justice and leaves the Board of Trustees, who planned its production and dissemination on YouTube, open to the charge of unethical and possibly illegal activity. Are the Trustees so determined to crush this man’s reputation that they will simply ‘do anything that it takes’? 

It is officially the position of the BPS (according to its own website for all to read) not to investigate individual members. However, does that claim fail to apply only when it is politically expedient for the interests of the incumbent leadership? Are the members seriously expected to believe that this has been anything but a ‘stitch up’ from start to finish? Was the investigation panel hand-picked by the Board of Trustees or not? How many on that panel were truly independent and without their own vested interest in the current regime of power? Were membership funds used liberally by the Board to hire legal advice in order to justify the scapegoating of a reformer, turned whistle blower? The questions go on and on. Some of them ultimately may be resolved in court but what is clear already is that Nigel MacLennan has not been treated in a fair manner, if we use everyday criteria of common sense and decency.

If the stitch up hypothesis is in doubt, look at how Carol McGuinness, in a follow-up document to that unedifying and ill-advised video, made it quite clear that even if Nigel MacLennan were to be re-instated on appeal, as a member of the Society, he would still not be permitted back to his role as the President Elect. This nothing-left-to-chance approach, reflecting the persecutory intent of the Board, sticks out like a sore thumb in this planned and vindictive attack on a man whose career has now suffered immediate detriment. 

I can find no justification for this pre-emptive strike from McGuinness, on behalf the Board, within the Statutes and Rules. Does she offer no rule-based rationale in the script she is reading because one simply does not exist? This brings us back to Fromm’s notion of ‘irrational authority’. Those in power often do and say things, simply because they can. But do we have to believe this travesty of justice? And given that under Statute 20 of the Society, the Board should have been chaired on an interim basis by MacLennan not McGuinness, is there an Alice in Wonderland feel to this whole scenario? 

We know that such a surreal quality can indeed emerge from group think, especially when it leads to scapegoating in order to create an illusion of homeostasis and harmony (Baron, 2005; Leyens et al. 2000). The warring factions of the SMT and the Trustees could take temporary comfort in a common enemy to be eliminated, but the facts of the crisis are still there, with or without the removal of MacLennan. Facts do not disappear because they are ignored conveniently by displacement activity or an ostrich stance.

Keeping the membership in the dark

If a making-the-rules-up-as-you-go-along approach to governance now characterises the workings of the cabal, then another supportive tactic has been information control. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the silence in the pages of The Psychologist. An exception has been the printing of the statement about the expulsion of MacLennan from McGuinness (giving the BPS a free noticeboard posting without editorial comment or analysis), as well as the link to her video. No right of reply was offered to MacLennan. If this were a normal magazine it would reflect the normal rules of journalism and both sides of a story would have been offered, or at least taken into account.

However, this is not a normal magazine. For example, the political turbulence in the Society, should have warranted some commentary but none has been evident. Its inside cover reminds us every month that it is ‘…the magazine of the British Psychological Society…’. If this means that it obeys the contingent expectations of those running the BPS, then this is actually a fair and valid description. However, maybe members of the Society have broader expectations (such as it being a forum for free debate about the current legitimation crisis). Such expectations are indeed raised, conveniently, by the subsequent cover description ‘…It provides a forum for communication, discussion and controversy among all members of the Society…’. Has there been any actual sign of the latter, in practice, in the past turbulent year? Why are ordinary members still playing catch up about the financial scandal in the Society, the fat file of complaints being held by the Charity Commission and the expensive legal shenanigans to expel Nigel MacLennan?

During the crisis, the monthly column of the Chief Executive Officer suddenly disappeared without editorial comment, and we slowly became aware that he was ‘not in his office’ and his function was then taken on by his Deputy, Diane Ashby. And before the President, Hazel McLoughlin, also disappeared from the pages because she had resigned, citing family reasons, the content of her column revealed nothing to the membership of the chaos and tensions, which led to the resignation of the Vice President David Murphy. He explained on Twitter that this was because of his concerns about both governance and finance.  

However, the role of this ‘magazine’ has not gone unquestioned. For example, here is a reply to Pat Harvey from the editor (12.12.20) responding to her criticism of The Psychologist failing to provide information of legitimate concern to the BPS membership:

We are not a ‘house journal’, we are a magazine. Our responsibility is not to speak for the Society or to align with any documents it might publish; it is to provide a forum for communication, discussion and controversy among members and beyond.

This restatement of the confusing and contradictory blurb, cited earlier from the inside cover of The Psychologist, does not cease to be confusing and contradictory simply because it is robotically restated. Does the membership deserve a better journalistic service, during the current legitimation crisis of the BPS, than this sort of vacuous rhetorical gambit? The supine post-it-board role offered by The Psychologist on behalf of the current BPS leadership, reminds us of one of many of Orwell’s dire warnings about democracy: ‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.’

The exchange between Pat Harvey and the editor of The Psychologist, Jon Sutton, did not end with the above restated confusion. She also wrote to the Chair of the Editorial Advisory Committee, Richard Stephens, starting with a complaint about the narrow and prejudicial role of The Psychologist, when being biddable and posting the offensive video. She made other criticisms of the magazine as well. This was the response she received from Stephens:

Thanks for your letter and for raising these concerns. I plan to table these for discussion at the next meeting of the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee on 24th June. I felt that your first raised point warranted some urgency of response so I discussed it today with our editor, Jon Sutton. Jon’s view was that while the video featuring Professor Carol McGuinness as Interim Chair of the Board of Trustee has been widely disseminated among BPS members, it is unlisted on YouTube. Given that The Psychologist has a much wider audience, Jon reflected that it’s inclusion in the piece “‘The Society is at a crossroads’” was not appropriate. On that basis the video has been removed. I will feedback in due course following our meeting on the 24th

This is a small sign of good sense and fairness from Richard Stephens, although at the time of writing the video is still available on YouTube.  Will this be the start of a period of genuine honest reflection from the Advisory Committee? Would the video have been removed had it not been for these critical questions from Pat Harvey? In my view, it seems as though those below the cabal level in the Society are very slowly waking up to the serious challenges that the legitimation crisis is posing for freedom of expression and balanced and open journalism in the future pages of The Psychologist. Elsewhere on the blog I have addressed the matter of censorship in the Society.

The ethical and legal culpability of the Trustees

The Charity Commission continues to work with the Society to bring it into ‘regulatory compliance’. This raises questions about the role of the Trustees in the recent past. How many of them (other than Nigel MacLennan), out of public interest, took their concerns about poor governance and financial irregularities to the Charity Commission or the press? 

Many resignations have been evident in recent months, including the President and Vice President. Are they now prepared to offer a full and frank account to the membership of what happened in the Board, which went so badly wrong? This could be a starting point for the ‘root and branch’ reform now required, to reverse the demise of the organisation. 

Will they admit that the conflicts of interest inherent to the current definition of a Board (which date back to a lack of specificity in the Royal Charter arrangements in 1988) have been routinely out of sync with current expectations of properly independent trustees in charities today? The current Board of Trustees is a sham because its members all have conflicts of interest and there are no outsiders from the Society to offer impartial oversight. Given the legitimation crisis, should the current Trustees at least own up to this basic fact, resign and insist on a properly constituted Board in line with Charity Commission expectations?  

And if it turns out that the negligence, or worse, of some Trustees has cost the BPS dearly, will they be held liable for these costs, as Charity Commission regulations allow? Will BPS members now seek to hold Trustees liable for the seeming losses incurred to the Society, by their apparent lack of oversight? Will that liability also extend to those who resigned but were in place during that period of apparent lack of oversight (in legal terms this is called ‘legacy liability’)?

This particular legitimation crisis, like all others, never stops posing questions for democracy. We all (not just a few pushy malcontents) need to keep asking them. The passivity in our current zeitgeist about trying to influence events around us does not have to lead to fatalism. We can still challenge the cabal and the current shambles in the BPS, as this blog and Nigel MacLennan have already demonstrated. The more of us taking up this challenge, the less likely that victimisation will be seen and the more likely that the Society will be saved from its own self-inflicted wounds. 

Baron, R. (2005). So right it’s wrong: Groupthink and the ubiquitous nature of polarized group decision making. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. 37: 35.

Habermas, J. (1974) Legitimation Crisis Boston: Beacon Press. 

Joynson, R. B. (1989). The Burt Affair. New York: Routledge

Leyens, J. Ph., Paladino, M. P., Rodriguez, R. T., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S., Rodriguez, A. P., & Gaunt, R. (2000) The emotional side of prejudice: The attribution of secondary emotions to ingroups and outgroups. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 4, 2, 186–97.

Marks,D.F  (2019) The Hans Eysenck affair: time to correct the scientific record Journal of Health Psychology 24, 4, 409–42.

Pilgrim, D. and Treacher, A. (1991) Clinical Psychology Observed London: Routledge.

4 thoughts on “The legitimation crisis and a membership denied answers”

  1. I did not read this article as the title was enough to put me off. In fact, the time it takes me to read The Psychologist is the time it takes me to turn the pages looking for something to read. My chief reason foe commenting on this blog is why is no-one else commenting? Are they all asleep?

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  2. Pravda-esque

    Permalink Submitted by David F Marks on Wed, 06/02/2021 – 10:25 – on The Psychologist website. I am copying the comment here as the powers-that-be in the BPS and The Psychologist magazine may delete it. My comments were triggered by an article in the June issue about ‘Power Posing’, a pseudoscientific piece of bullshit totally lacking any sense of irony.

    If the issues affecting the BPS and its membership had never been more serious and dire, I would think this article on “Power Posing” must be an embarrassing joke.Readers interested in how their membership fees are being squandered can get up to speed by reading “The legitimation crisis and a membership denied answers” available at: https://bpswatch.com/.

    You will not find any of the most essential information here in the Psychologist. It has all been embargoed by the unelected management.

    Instead of doing a genuine job as a forum for “communication, discussion and controversy”, this magazine hides behind the coattails of senior management and, instead drags its readers through the pseudoscientific depths of topics such as ‘power posing’.

    Contrary to its published statement to “provide a forum…among all members of the society” and “to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied”, the Psychologist’s editor, Jon Sutton, serves as a minion of the unelected officers of the BPS Psychologist. BPS members are treated with contempt by the Society and its magazine. This un-peer-reviewed magazine claims to promote advancement of knowledge; on the contrary it promotes a regress to the lowest common denominator of content that aims to be ‘popular’. Unfortuntaely, ‘Pop Psychology’ tends to be ‘Pseudopsychology’, as Mr Loncar’s article demonstrates.

    How is the science of power posing advancing human knowledge? We are informed by Mr Tom Loncar MSc (King’s College London) of Tom Loncar Executive Coaching that “Adding neutral posture controls into future research designs will elucidate this important evidentiary – and practical – question.” Wow! No, surely not! – the researchers have thought of using control groups, not Psychology 101 but in the columns of The Psychologist.

    A conclusion that “power posing may now be ready to expand” leaves this reader in wonderment about what new discoveries might be forthcoming.

    The Psychologist fails to address the most relevant truth: the BPS has reached a nadir in its reputation as a professional society and has no credible governance. In parallel, a nadir has been reached by the Psychologist in the art of bullshitting as eloquently explained in the May issue by Emma Young: “people who bullshit more often in a bid to impress or persuade others are also more susceptible to bullshit themselves”.

    As the complaints mount up, the Charity Commission is investigating. One fears that the ending of the BPS story will not be a good one.

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