David Pilgrim posts….
Recently we have been exploring BPS bullshit [see here]. Peter Harvey’s recent post is a good example. He describes a simple request to The Psychologist to have pertinent questions answered in a public space, where the members of the BPS might have his shared curiosity. The letter was not published but passed on to the editor’s employer. A relevant reminder here is that The Psychologist is ‘...the magazine of the British Psychological Society…’. It is not refereed and all decisions about letters and articles rest in the sole hands of the editor.
Critical commentary from David Pilgrim
What can we glean from this exchange? Well, the letter was clearly too hot to handle for the editor of The Psychologist, Jon Sutton, even though its content was relevant for the BPS members who are its readership. Indeed, it raises the question about what – if anything – he might publish in a letter that pertains to the Society (rather than a response to material he has already sanctioned in previous editions). Bullshit is as much about what is not said as what is said (for the philosophically minded this invites an ‘omissive critique’). The past two years have provided those in power with the convenient shared boat experience of the pandemic. However, our collective plight has been used at times as a cover story for evasions that would probably have been there in any case.
By blocking the publication of the letter in The Psychologist and deliberately opting to hive off the exchange to a personal response to Peter Harvey, this ensured that the whole readership was then kept in the dark about crucial matters. Jon Sutton and Diane Ashby between them yet again limited what was being explored publicly and in the public interest about an organization in crisis. From Ashby the vague descriptions we have become used to are also present in this individualized response. For example, we are offered these two desultory sentence about a grave matter that merits a full discussion for, and with, the BPS membership:
“Once the fraud was discovered an independent investigation was immediately commissioned by the Board of Trustees and actions have been taken based on its findings. You will be aware that the Chief Executive is currently on extended leave from the society.”
Here are some relevant questions that ordinary members might be interested in:
Why did many months elapse between the police investigating the fraud and the CEO being suspended? Why, initially did the Board opt to make the CEO the liaison link with the police? Why was the CEO suspended and not simply sacked? What grounds were discussed in the Board for the suspension option? Did some Board members resist any action being taken against the CEO? What actions have been taken as a result of the investigation? Ashby’s failure to provide routine bulletins to BPS members is part of a strategy from the cabal: remember the vacuous phrases about the Society being at a ‘…crossroads…’ after a ‘…challenging year…’ from Carol McGuinness in her infamous and now removed Youtube video? This vagueness signals that those in power are ‘in the know’ but are not prepared to tell ordinary mortals what they know.
I suspect that this concerted silence about the material facts of what is happening at the centre of the BPS would have been broken had the Board been dominated by truly independent Trustees, rather than an acculturated cabal with inherent conflicts of interest. Pompous rhetoric about confidentiality was soon their cover story for secrecy. As we do not have an organization with independent Trustees, this is my guess about a path not taken since 1988.
It is important to note that Ashby was primarily appointed to lead the ‘Change Programme’ and at times she has adopted that title in correspondence, rather than ‘Deputy Chief Executive’. But within the latter role, which she has been in now for nigh on a year, why has she not kept the members informed at all times of the crisis at the centre of the organization? Surely, that would be a primary expectation of the Charity Commission of good management practice. Those absent bulletins from Ashby might have mentioned a few facts that will be of relevance to the history of the Society in years to come.
Apart from the silence about a major fraud and a fire at the Leicester office, other points for the imagined bulletin board would have been her comments on matters of broken governance. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, to lose one President was unfortunate, but to lose two was careless, and to lose three (note over just a two month period) was a governance catastrophe. Ashby prefers instead to keep up appearances of probity and a ‘problem what problem?’ stance to what is being said in public.
Other absent items from her bulletins relate to the NCVO commenting on the psychologically unsafe culture in the BPS (reported in Third Sector). No news either from her about the considerable amount of money paid to fancy lawyers, to set in train the removal a radically reforming President Elect, who was both intent on cleaning up the longstanding misgovernance and a whistle blower in waiting. Some members might have a view on whether this vindictive use of lawyers was a good use of their fees. They may have to wait some time for the facts to emerge to make that judgment but those payments were made and, to my mind, their ethics remain in considerable doubt.
Moving from the silences to what Ashby does say above, a first impression is that it seems like a lengthy exercise in transparency, especially compared to the norm from the SMT in the past year of evasions. Demands for accountability from us have been either ignored or, if they have been too persistent, elicited charges of us bullying or harassing BPS employees. Prior to that we were issued with a cease and desist notice for simply mentioning that the CEO was suspended in November 2020.
At that point the cabal could not discern the difference between material facts (he was and remains on extended leave following his suspension) from matters of confidentiality. Maybe since then their legal advice about that distinction has now prompted Ms. Ashby’s willingness to discuss that material fact in her mail. Maybe members might also be interested in how the resolution to the hiatus in his employment will now be resolved. Such a process itself is a material fact that is known to the cabal but is not being revealed to ordinary BPS members.
The pressure from the Charity Commission might now be a factor in this seeming change of style from the ‘Deputy Chief Executive’. Although the Commission should have done more to date, they are still ‘engaged’ in relation to changes about the lack of independence of the Board of Trustees and the broken complaints system.
In light of the above silences, why this sort of letter now and what is it actually telling us beyond waffle about everything in the garden being rosy? The answer is that it is the picture Ashby wants us to believe about the purported organisational panacea of the Change Programme. The development of the latter was an early trigger point for the removal of the President Elect. He was demanding, on behalf of the membership, a coherent rationale with credible details attached transparently about the benefits being claimed. The SMT failed to provide the Board of Trustees with that needed information; he stood firm in his demands and he paid a high price.
This exercise in faux-accountability reveals the political relationship between The Psychologist and those who ultimately control its content. By taking control of the discourse about the current and unresolved crisis, Ashby is doing her best to pretend that the crisis does not exist. But if it does exist then her control of the discourse will eventually become threadbare. The Society will disintegrate and its legitimacy will crumble, whatever we, or Ashby, say or do not say.
A delusion now common in politics, large and small, is that discourse is everything; that if we can develop the right ‘narrative’ then reality will be what we want it to be. This postmodern Alice-In- Wonderland madness has not just created the implausible contortions of identity politics (another instrumentally embraced convenience for the BPS cabal), it has also led to extra-discursive causal powers being ignored at our peril. Donald Trump said that global warming was not a problem and we should just sweep up leaves differently to stop forest fires. Diane Ashby says everything is under control and no problems of probity exist in the BPS. They are both wrong and this letter to Peter Harvey is a recent illustration of this point.