"The Psychologist", Academic freedom and censorship, Board of Trustees, Governance

THE BPS AND THE FOURTH ESTATE

David Pilgrim posts…

Today the relationship between the cabal running the BPS and the press reflects the governance crisis now evident to us all. When it is ‘business as usual’ then the press office of any organisation simply scans for opportunities to maintain a positive public profile and promote its wares. However, the business as usual in the BPS in recent times has been, to say the least, problematic given the evidence of misgovernance and corruption.

Misgovernance in the BPS probably can be traced back to 1988, when the version of Board of Trustees adopted was a sham of a democratic structure, which had an inbuilt lack of independent oversight. By the turn of this century, corruption crept into the culture. In the past few years both misgovernance and corruption have interplayed. Slowly those outside of the current cabal, which is seeking in a rear-guard action to deny this historical reality or mitigate its personal damage for Trustees, are wising up. That critical scrutiny has come from a range of parties. 

The first wave of protest came from disparate members who encountered a broken complaints procedure and a rubber wall of resistance from the centre of the organisation. Some individual members left in disgusted exasperation. Some acted collectively to set up an alternative organisation (the Association of Clinical Psychologists). The second wave came from a reforming President-Elect, who was immediately marginalised, kept in the dark and then expelled in a show trial. In a continuing travesty of justice, he is now the victim of a biased mock appeal process. The third wave came from the Charity Commission in its ongoing attempts to bring the Society into legal and regulatory compliance. The fourth form of critical scrutiny came from the police, with their ongoing inquiries into acts of alleged criminality. 

Earlier pieces on the blog have dealt with this challenging scenario, which is  now a matter of verifiable fact. That grim reality is the context for Trustees jumping ship or clinging to the wreckage. It is also the grim reality, to be examined in bemusement and disappointment, for ordinary members waking up to the mess. Finally, the ‘fourth estate’ has now begun to play its part in reporting aspects of all of the above. 

Impression management during times of crisis

Press officers and advertising executives have a shared concern for what Erving Goffman called ‘impression management’ in relation to the self-presentation of individuals. It was extended by others to political and organisational information control (Peck and Hogue, 2018). How do these gatekeepers of impressions promote good news to advance the interests of their organisation and their current leadership and silence bad news? In the latter regard, in the common parlance of a new management class, with an eye to the training manual of the satire The Thick of It, how do they ensure ‘damage limitation’? 

Given the current crisis in the BPS, a number of tactics have been deployed in relation to the above waves of critical scrutiny. This is what has happened in each case. First, they ignored complaints from members or used the complaints sub-system as a rabbit hole. To reinforce this Kafkaesque obfuscation at the individual level, the whole membership was kept in the dark about what was going so badly wrong. The silence in the pages of The Psychologist (‘the magazine of the BPS’) limited the prospect of membership curiosity. Memos were sent to office holders discouraging frank and open discussion. Here is an example of one sent by a Trustee on behalf of their Board to office holders in sub-systems in December 2020:

Dear all, We are aware that questions are being raised by yourselves and by your colleagues. We are able to share the following BPS statement with you, which we have received today: 

“We are aware of unhelpful speculation and inaccurate information circulating on social media about a confidential staff issue at the society. This relates to a review about internal procedures within the society.  As some of the information that has been shared online is incorrect and potentially defamatory, we have written to the authors of these statements and they have agreed to remove them from their blog and twitter account. As we are sure you will understand, and as the review is ongoing, we have a responsibility to maintain confidentiality and we are unable to comment on this issue further.

We would also like to correct misleading information that states the society is being investigated by the Charity Commission. We are not aware that the Charity Commission has opened an investigation. We take our legal responsibilities as a charity seriously and would always inform our oversight bodies of any relevant issues affecting the society. Several months ago we responded to requests for information from the Charity Commission but we have not received any notification of concerns to date. We would like to assure members that the society continues to operate as normal.”

We hope this is helpful. The statement can be shared with committee members if they are raising questions. Questions can also be directed to the BPS communications team.”

This is a dream memo for those interested in critical discourse analysis. Apart from the overall sub-text, which is ‘please stop asking awkward questions or discussing matters we would rather not talk about’, it is rife with silences about authorial responsibility. If the speculation has been unhelpful then unhelpful to whom and why? If the information is inaccurate then what is the accurate information? Outside of the quotation marks, what does the word ‘we’ refer to? Inside the quotation marks what does the word ‘we’ refer to? Is that the same ‘we’ or a different ‘we’ and how would an ordinary member know the difference? Who exactly is ‘the BPS’? 

Turning to the assurance at the end about the role of the BPS communication team, do they have a vested interest in what is said and what is not said? Were individual members of the BPS communication team implicated in the moves to expel the President Elect or not? Did they confect the ill-advised video on YouTube, disparaging the expelled President Elect in advance of his appeal or not? Have they supported acts of censorship in the Society, thus betraying academic freedom or not? Have they been implicated in controlling what is said, and not said, to the press about concerns of misgovernance and corruption, which now has triggered more than one criminal investigation?

Answering the last question, journalists have been kept at bay with a range of tactics, including threatening them with legal action. There is a difficulty though with impression management when the context is one of dire dysfunction (the current actuality at the centre of the BPS). In a liberal democracy, secrecy in organisations and hostile refusals when approached by the press will tend to further encourage the curiosity of journalists. Not only are they used to evasions (they are experts themselves in impression management), they also are part of highly financed organisations with dedicated legal departments. 

This is especially applicable to The Times and the Daily Telegraph (the largest broadsheet circulation in the UK). David Brown at the former and Hayley Dixon at the latter have run stories which expose the current BPS dysfunction. Stephen Delahunty in the niche online magazine Third Sector has also played his part in exposing current problems in the Society. I understand that soon more will come on board with this scrutiny from the mainstream mass media. Journalists, like writers on this blog, are not going away and the cabal now have that new headache. 

It is one thing for members to be threatened with ‘cease and desist notices’ from the BPS (as applied to this blog in its early days), it is quite another to expect the same tactic to be successful with seasoned journalists and their supportive employers.  The futility of the current BPS tactic is borne of two problems for its communications team. First, newspapers, with the confidence of legal backing, will both investigate rigorously and publish confidently. Second, journalists will take more, not less, interest in the story if they meet evasions or threats from the target of their interest. 

The BPS as a medium-sized charity can eschew internal scrutiny from its members by using threats and evasions or expelling whistle blowers (see above). However, the press will not be cowed so easily. This leaves the BPS communication team with limited options. They can refuse to put journalists in touch with personnel (staff or non-employed volunteers from the membership) and they might defend a position as being reasonable and so not requiring undue scrutiny. They might simply refuse to comment – the preferred tactic, inter alia, of the defensive police suspect or the aloof government department. Here we do find a consistent line of reasoning: whether critics are internal from the membership or external from journalists, a ‘problem what problem?’ approach has become a sort of magical thinking from ‘the BPS’. 

However, members are not stupid (their IQs tend to be well into triple figures) and journalists are certainly not biddable dupes. The waffle in the memo above implies that critics are misrepresenting the truth – what, according to the Trustees, is the truth then? Was the CEO suspended or not? Was there a large fraud being investigated by the police or not? Did the Finance Director leave for employment elsewhere or not while he was under investigation? The distinction between the verifiable material facts, which should be disclosed transparently in the public interest, and the details of any process legitimately warranting confidentiality, in order to protect the fair treatment of individuals, is clear and readily made. 

What the cabal has done regularly recently is elide legitimate confidentiality and self-interested secrecy [see here].  The exact reasons for this secrecy will no doubt come out, in details to be eventually disclosed in court proceedings and any future employment tribunal hearings. At this stage, I can only speculate that the need to shroud the misgovernance in mystification and evasions is that Trustees, past and present, are now fearfully and fully aware of their legacy liability. The Trustees have been party to a lack of oversight about a number of serious matters over a period of time and they know this to be a fact. 

This scenario was evidenced in the concerns expressed by the resigning Deputy President David Murphy, earlier this year, when making vague allusions on Twitter to his concerns about governance and finance. However, note that he too has not given a full and frank elaboration to the membership of the governance wreckage he was now swimming away from. He knows far more than he is saying publicly. 

Secrecy, denials, deflections and evasions, embodied in the strategic ‘problem what problem?’ approach adopted in the communications team’s efforts at impression management, are our starting points for an empirical description of this case study of a dysfunctional organisation. These psycho-social processes have become an irrational collective defence for the cabal against future reckonings. In truth, judgment day will come eventually for those who have resigned, not just for thus who remained. In the eventual history of the BPS, these people will not have covered themselves in glory, to put it charitably. Resignations provide no protection, legally, from legacy liability.

An example of this point, which is already evident, is that to date, with the exception of the expelled President Elect, who repeatedly asked for accountability (and was punished for his efforts), the Trustees have provided no explanation to the membership of the financial cost of misgovernance. If they demanded accountability in this regard, then where might the members read the relevant reports?  Remember members have paid for all these shenanigans and yet the BPS continues to claim hypocritically to value transparency. Basically, the Trustees did not ask for, and so cannot provide the membership with, an account of how much money has been lost to the Society. 

The fraud is one aspect of this scenario, but so too is the Machiavellian spectacle of the Trustees wilfully using Society funds to seek expert legal rationalisations to punish and disparage the one man who blew the whistle on what was going wrong. And then there is the lack of a coherent and transparent business case for the organisational change programme, with its cool £6 million price tag. The press will probably take an avid interest in this and other matters in the near future. For journalists, money is one thing to reflect on, but so is policy distortion.

A Recent Case Study

On this blog we have highlighted that policy capture has occurred in the BPS from partisan interest groups, including the closure of the memory and law group to exclude the evidence of under-reported child abuse and its implications for adult mental health. Another example of ideological capture relates to some gender-affirmative activists driving BPS policy statements about the extension of prescribing rights for psychologists (a Trojan horse for some enthusiasts to prescribe hormones), the controversial gender document (British Psychological Society, 2019) and the manipulation of wording in the Memorandum of Understanding on conversion therapy. 

The latter document shifted from a non-controversial version in 2015, focusing only on homosexuality, to one in which gender identity was bolted on. Logically, sexuality and gender identity are quite separate matters and so should not be conflated in policies. However, that is precisely what activists, including representatives from the BPS, did in their re-writing of the document between 2015 and 2017 [see here and here].

This is a controversial matter, as the difficulties at the GIDS service of the Tavistock Centre have highlighted, with many psychologists who worked there leaving with serious concerns about the ideological capture of service philosophy. The lack of evidence of efficacy for the latter was at the centre of the judicial review, which emerged in December 2020. Despite this clear division within the psychological community about best practice, when responding (or not) to gender non-conformity, in society, the BPS is now linked in its policies to only one side of the argument. This leaves many therapists fearful about exploring options that are not based on routine gender affirmation and referral on for biomedical transition. This story of professional division was then picked up by the press.

A piece from Hayley Dixon in the Daily Telegraph appeared on July 8th 2021, about the clinical freedom of psychological practitioners. The group Thoughtful Therapists recently successfully lobbied the government to proceed with caution and protect clinical freedom about intervention options. Dixon goes on in her piece (cited in full here):

‘They called on ministers “not to criminalise essential, explorative therapy” and warned that there had been a “worrying number of young people de-transitioning and regretting medical treatment”. After the petition reached 10,000 signatures, the Government Equalities Office responded and said that they would ensure the ban on the “abhorrent practice” of conversion therapy does not have “unintended consequences”. “We will protect free speech, uphold the individual freedoms we all hold dear and protect under-18s from irreversible decisions”, the department promised.

“We will ensure parents, teachers and medical professionals are able to safeguard young people from inappropriate interventions and are clear that this ban must not impact on the independence and confidence of clinicians to support those who may be experiencing gender dysphoria.”

They will be holding a consultation to work out the specifics of the new law in the coming months.

But there are fears that even if clinicians are protected under the ban, their work could be impacted by a memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy which has been signed by all the major health, counselling and psychotherapy organisations in the UK.  

Little is known about the Coalition Against Conversion Therapy, which is the steering group for the memorandum, and it has not been revealed whether the document, which is due for review this month, will be looked at again.

The current 2017 document, which included “gender identity” in the definition of conversion therapy for the first time, was written with support of the controversial LGBT charity Stonewall.

The guidelines have widely been interpreted as proposing an affirmative approach and have led to psychotherapists saying that they avoid questioning children as young as six who come to them claiming they wanted to transition.

The Thoughtful Therapists have attempted to contact the signatories – including the NHS, the Royal College of GPs and the UK Council for Psychotherapy – asking to discuss the guidelines as they govern their work with a “vulnerable group of young people with many unknowns and an extremely poor evidence base for significant medical interventions”.

But they have not received a response from any of the members after Dr Igi Moon, chairman of the memorandum and the lead on the document for the British Psychological Society, asked her colleagues “not respond” to the email chain.

Dr Moon, who uses the pronouns they/them and is involved in trans activism, describes those with gender critical views as “terfs”, commonly defined as a feminist who excludes the rights of transgender women from their advocacy of women’s rights, and says that binary gender is inherited “from colonialism”.

In one debate Trans Liberation: What are our demands?, organised by Momentum activists, Dr Moon demanded that more hormones are made available and that GPs offer bridging hormones to those awaiting treatment.

Telling campaigners to lobby the Government, they said that there are “thousands of people who are not receiving treatment” and if it was any other condition that was “killing people” it would be getting more attention because “as we can see from Coronavirus, there are ways to fund health care”. Dr Moon added: “I am not prepared to stand back and watch my community die. It’s not going to happen, not again.” 

A spokesman for Thoughtful Therapists said that they are concerned as the document “seemingly mandates an affirmation-only approach to working with gender dysphoria”.

They added: “We are particularly concerned with the lack of transparency by the Coalition governing the document and its chairman Dr Igi Moon, who on numerous occasions has refused to engage with our professional concerns regarding treatment for gender dysphoria and has instructed signatory organisations not to speak to us. For such an important clinical issue, this stonewalling is shocking.”

Dr Moon and the British Psychological Society failed to respond to a request for comment.’(emphasis added, end cited article)

Note then that on a matter of serious public concern, with empirical claims being made about people being killed unless a particular form of healthcare philosophy is imposed monolithically on the British population, via the NHS, those making the claims refuse point blank to comment to the press or professional colleagues. The BPS refuses to offer a view, tacitly therefore supporting the current policy formation shaped by gender activists. 

Whatever position a reader may take on this topic (which will vary in a community of scholars and practitioners, mirroring their host society divided on the matter), behind this evasion from the BPS is the recurrent failure of governance in relation to policy formation. I would apply this critical claim to policies that I actually agree with, and even have been party to developing, including, for example, the BPS documents on psychosis (https://www.bps.org.uk/what-psychology/understanding-psychosis-and-schizophrenia), as well as the Power Threat Meaning Framework (Johnstone and Boyle, 2018). 

The point here is that if the BPS were functioning properly as a learned society, which routinely set up in advance proper terms of references about any policy and ensured all voices in the Society were then heard, then post hoc protests would be pre-empted, and wasteful publicly enacted divisions avoided. A learned society should be open and transparent about considering evidence, forms of inference and value positions from all parts of the membership academic and applied

However, as both the law and memory debacle and the example just given demonstrate, this inclusive and scholarly approach to policy deliberation, formation and eventual recommendation are not ensured. They are not ensured because the BPS is not a well governed organisation. To make matters worse, a culture of impression management celebrated by those who have no academic background or experience in the values of psychology, as a discipline, now dominates the BPS in the wake of a management coup. 

The press may well continue to play their part in alerting us to what is happening in relation to matters of finance and policy. One thing is certain: that sort of reportage will not be forthcoming from the cabal, nor will it be elaborated in the pages of The Psychologist. The BPS communication team will make that outcome a strategic priority. Meanwhile the world, including journalists, looks on to an organisation that claims to be both transparent and learned. The reader can make their own mind up. But to do so they need access to the story of what has really gone on in the BPS, since the turn of this century. 

This blog and curious journalists will keep fleshing out this story. Historians of the Society and the state of British psychology are now beginning their work. A future empirical sign of integrity and probity in the BPS, if it survives as a charity and credible learned organisation, will be that such historical accounts are published not censored. We should be grateful for the role of a free press in helping secure that preferred outcome.

British Psychological Society (2019) Guidelines for Psychologists Working with Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity Leicester: British Psychological Society.

Johnstone, L. and Boyle, M. with Cromby, J., Dillon, J., Harper, D., Kinderman, P., Longden, E., Pilgrim, D. & Read, J. (2018) The Power Threat Meaning Framework: Towards the Identification of Patterns in Emotional Distress, Unusual Experiences and Troubled or Troubling Behaviour Leicester: British Psychological Society. 

Peck, J. A. and Hogue, M. (2018). Acting with the best of intentions… or not: a typology and model of impression management in leadershipThe Leadership Quarterly29 (1): 123–134. 

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.