"The Psychologist", 'False Memory Syndrome', Academic freedom and censorship, Expulsion of President-Elect, Gender, Governance, IAPT, Memory and the Law Group, Prescribing Rights

The British Psychological Society: Failing the Public

Pat Harvey posts….

Because of their acknowledged expertise, Psychologists enjoy professional autonomy; responsibility is an essential element of autonomy. Psychologists must accept appropriate responsibility for what is within their power, control or management. Awareness of responsibility ensures that the trust of others is not abused, the power of influence is properly managed and that duty towards others is always paramount.

Statement of values: Psychologists value their responsibilities to persons and peoples, to the general public, and to the profession and science of Psychology, including the avoidance of harm and the prevention of misuse or abuse of their contribution to society.

BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct, 2018.

A dysfunctional Society

The British Psychological Society’s serious governance dysfunction, the central concern of BPSWatch (1) has important consequences, not only for the way it behaves towards its own membership, but ultimately in how it functions in relation to its responsibilities to the wider community. A Royal Chartered Charity, (2) its formal Objects may not explicitly state that it has that latter duty and responsibility to wider society, but the second Object requires it to have a Code of Ethics and Conduct (3). That Code includes the statement shown above and only a legal weasel or a BPS bureaucrat might, if pushed into a corner, attempt to deny that the Charter does not require a duty to the public at large. 

The growing awareness of the organisational dysfunction and the wilful withholding of information about this brought us together to form BPSWatch and the associated Twitter account @psychsocwatchuk. Whilst we and others have as yet failed to create sufficient pressure to see the ongoing involvement of the Charity Commission with the BPS over its governance problems escalate into a full Statutory Inquiry, we have helped to get information out into the mainstream and other media: The Times, The Telegraph and Third Sector. They will no doubt renew and sharpen their interest as anticipated legal cases become public. Meanwhile the individual concerns initially brought to us about specific policy topics which have been mishandled remain unresolved. It is our contention, and that of the complainants who have contacted us, that each of these is a matter of public concern and public protection.

 Unbalanced Views and Member Complaints

Psychology is, and should always be, alive and comfortable with controversy and debate. Members have a right to expect an open facilitative climate, where the best of psychological research, practice and policy formation would be supported and discussion promoted.  We, and others, think the BPS is failing to do this and efforts to complain about such failures have led to our focus on the actual suppression of viewpoints and the active censorship of controversies including  

Gender

Memory-Based Evidence

Prescribing Rights

IAPT

These impact directly on practitioners and the people and services they work with, but they also impact upon discussion in public life. They are matters of concern to the mental well-being of individuals who are vulnerable and finding themselves in threatening situations in their communities, in a clinic or in court. They are psychological matters still open to alignments of differing viewpoints.  We believe the BPS has a duty to address these, elucidate their conflictual aspects, review and weigh the evidence base and its adequacy, and specify remaining questions. 

Since this has not happened, members have tried to complain. They have often been ignored or met resistance.  A network of disparate, dissatisfied complainants discovered each other by word of mouth and email chains, and we were encouraged by this to set up BPSWatch.  The writer came into this originally due to what I believed to be grossly inadequate and incomplete BPS guidelines on gender for practitioners (4) which I had discovered in connection with a high profile childcare case which went to court.  I considered the guidelines totally unfit for purpose and was minded to complain. I then came across a statement made by a key player in their construction. This person’s formal presentation as an expert psychologist was recorded at an academic forum which was posted in an online video. They made a categoric statement that, based on what they held to be definitive research findings, the question of psychological outcomes of gender reassignment surgery was closed, stating “…the debate is shut. There is not a debate about that anymore…”. This is not a statement that any Chartered Psychologist should be making either in form or in content. It constitutes what will be taken by audience and viewer as authoritative summation of the current evidence base on outcomes of surgery. It misrepresents how psychologists should talk about scientific enquiry, and is actually untrue. It is, therefore, unethical. Furthermore, as a ‘take-away message’ in that forum and online, with the implied weight of the British Psychological Society behind that person’s position and reputation, it is seriously irresponsible. That message had the potential to impact directly, if heard, upon people making life-changing choices.

The BPS complaints team batted the complaint about the statement away. The first response (stage 1), was a blithe and ironic “…we are a broad church…”. I persisted, with references, and this aspect of my complaint, whilst taken more seriously and addressed in more detail, was rejected. They stated “…Although there will always be some dissenting voices, the idea that this represents a real schism in the scientific community [note, this misrepresents my precise concern] … is incorrect…”. In fact, subsequent reputable research publications (5) have strongly supported my contention that the jury was still out on this, and the debate is, and should, remain open. Uncertainty about those outcomes remains, and needs to be the subject of much more adequate data collection, follow-up and methodologically sound research. The psychologist I complained about was peddling certainties, taking a protagonist/activist position in the guise of the science, and the BPS was wrong to continue to support that. Vulnerable people, their families and their rights are ill-served by false certainties coming from supposedly highly authoritative sources, backed by the BPS

Conflict Avoidance

I have cited the above to illustrate not only the tortuous experience of trying to make a complaint to the BPS but also to illustrate how poor is the quality of the Society response. In the case of another of the topics listed above, Memory-Based Evidence, the BPS took a different tack – they dumped the challenge half-way through. The BPS’s previous out-dated guidance on this area was deemed to have been skewed at the time (2008, 2010) by the impact of the false memory/recovered memory lobby (6). The BPS had seemed, over the years and in the pages of The Psychologist, to have had stars in its eyes around a famous and foremost proponent, Elizabeth Loftus (7). She had been made an Honorary Fellow of the Society and lauded for her subsequent awards. Not all members were happy about this (8). For the interest of the reader, an admirable and informative account of the journalistically styled ‘Memory Wars’ can be found outside the pages of academic journals and The Psychologist in the link below (9). Such informed coverage puts the BPS house journal to shame. During the of writing this article, a US jury have shown limited sympathy with the defence case for which Loftus gave her usual form of evidence (10) and Robert Durst has been found guilty of a murder committed 20 years ago.

 A BPS-appointed Task and Finish group was set up to revise their outdated guidance. There was a good deal of demand for this from practitioners who appear in court in connection with many kinds of trauma, particularly in the context of historical child abuse allegations.  Well into its work, the working group was unexpectedly closed down (11). The Psychologist published a statement from the Chair of the Research Board suggesting this was an amicable and consensual decision – we have been directly informed by participants it was not.  As one comment amongst the many to The Psychologist stated “…I am a member of the Memory Based Evidence Group and I would like the right of reply to respond about some of what has happened in this Group, which was tasked on writing a document on Memory and the Law. I am unhappy about the Research Board’s decision to disband the group, and I do not think that there has been a satisfactory answer to why such a decision was made; this decision was made without consultation with the group members, nor with the wider Society….“(11). The announcement in The Psychologist was made with this statement “Unfortunately, the standards of evidence for the report and the need for consensus and a convergence of evidence from experimental work and clinical practice, [my emphasis] as defined within the Terms of Reference for the group, could not be met.”. (11)

Contained within this statement, one which might immediately raise the questions: “Who set those terms of reference?” and “Isn’t the contentiousness the very reason for these guidelines?” is a clue to where some of the underlying and poorly managed tensions may originate. Academic/practitioner conflicts have dogged other psychological associations; for example the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science in the USA (12). As someone from a practitioner background, my view would be that there are serious drawbacks to research which sets out to answer questions arising from the clinical environment using crudely artificial analogues. Memory based evidence is one topic illustrating the drawbacks in using research set up in staged non-personal settings to discredit the opinions (in the legal sense) of practitioners working in non-analogous trauma related circumstances.  If you have any doubts about the dire need for an authoritative dispassionate view on this particular controversy to protect individuals on both sides in an adversarial court environment, consider what the absence of that psychological balance does – it leaves courts wide open to the machinations of the British False Memory Society. How it actually goes about doing its work is described in detail in this video (13).  A balanced view from the BPS could surely weigh the concerns about false positives and false negatives within the context of BFMS strategies, the applicability of academic research to traumatic memory, and social context of the serious underreporting of child sexual abuse (14). This would greatly assist in the court setting which itself attempts, as does a practitioner, a case-by-case assessment of veracity. The BPS Research Board have in effect kicked the revision of the guidelines into the long grass, the old guidelines having been archived.  These, however, are still available to be cited and used on the uninformed if you know where to look online. 

The BPS Working for the BPS?

Further discussion of these topics, and also of the implications of the BPS failings on Prescribing Rights and IAPT, can be found in specific articles on the blog (15, 16, 17). They illustrate a systematic failure to conduct proper consultation over key concerns in service provision models and health service professional practice. Why and how is this happening? 

The BPS, it seems, has an opaque system and uses equally opaque criteria for choosing its preferred advisors and for what policies are to be discussed with government departments and the NHSE. Feedback to members is minimal or non-existent. We have been reliably informed that a BPS CEO felt quite free to negotiate with NHSE without the presence of any psychologist. This leaves the room for a Society with an ever more rapacious in-house business agenda to be sucked into any government ideology where a shared vested interest may appear. The wider views of members working in the field may well be sidelined or completely ignored. The alleged current government agenda on privatising health care/moving to insurance models is open to facilitation by the self-interest of particular voices who manage to gain favour. In that context, note the latest BPS attempts to convince the NHSE and PSA that the Society can regulate an influx of less qualified younger members who will bring in fees and subscriptions to swell the coffers. There is little reason to think this will go well. In contrast to welcoming ever wider groups for membership, senior members seem to be regarded as a nuisance – maybe more trouble than they are literally worth, unless they are securely corralled within the system’s tent and staying ‘on script’ with the assistance of the Society’s Comms team – being one of the ‘cronies’.

Cronyism and Its Ills

We arrived at the term ‘serial office holder’ to describe how some psychologists have made a parallel career from being a BPS ‘apparatchik’. These psychologists move from one office to another over years (sometimes decades), sometimes elected, sometimes appointed. They make a virtue of their extended contributions. They are able to use the BPS logo on their websites and list the many impressive offices they have held on their CVs. Thus their BPS career is likely to enhance their professional reputation. They like to give each other honorary lifetime memberships and even when that is done in an AGM on Zoom in 2021, you may be expected to stamp your feet under your desk in approval.

 It would seem highly likely that a regime where cronyism is a norm will lead to complacency, lack of critical reflection, closing ranks, and resistance to newcomers taking important roles. An extreme example of this was the opposition to, and the action taken against, the President Elect 2020-21, Dr Nigel MacLennan. He was elected on a reforming mandate and then expelled. The expulsion was heralded in a vilifying YouTube video for all to see even before he had chance to appeal. We know many members thought that horrible and immoral, and one can only shudder at the extent to which living in the BPS bubble has distorted the judgement and the personal morality of those implicated in, and complicit with, show trial tactics. The person chosen to conduct his ‘appeal’, far from being independent of the previous proceedings and personnel involved, described himself in an interview with The Psychologist, on assuming his own presidential office, as “…a BPS Junkie since 1984…”. He has been around the corridors, real and virtual, of the BPS for more than 30 years, the BPS and he being ‘in each others’ DNA’ so to speak. 

Not all serial office holders are treated well in the BPS, however, particularly if they start to question how things are being done. They too may be attacked and threatened like MacLennan. We have heard how some become very distressed, visibly so in meetings, but then increasingly conform; others resist but remain peculiarly defensive of some idealised notion of the organisation and its capacity for change despite all evidence of its malign dysfunction. These patterns are reminiscent of what has been called Stockholm Syndrome. It is pertinent to consider how an unhealthy organisational environment where the main focus is self-perpetuation might allow for another form of organisational capture, by activism. Any would-be activist moles would be well-advised to get their feet under the table by not rocking the organisational boat and to volunteer for taking on work others don’t want. Then they just need to wait for their policy agenda to float into view and haul it in.

Psychologists, Psychology and Activism

The writer has been a lifelong political activist and vigorously supports, in her personal life, action on climate change, poverty, inclusivity and world peace. I took to the streets in the 1970s when my town elected National Front/National Party councillors. I was part of the making of a World In Action TV programme on that racist environment. Those passionate views had to be put on mute in my clinical work. I currently hold strong views about many of the contentious topics in psychology, but our focus at BPSWatch is to ensure that no partisan view – including my own – within an area of ongoing scientist/practitioner debate captures the BPS. Some activists had assumed because we criticised BPS bias that we supported their ‘side’ of a particular argument, hence we have revisited and set out our agenda (19) – good governance, not certain ‘causes’.

We argue in BPSWatch that gender, memory-based evidence, prescribing rights and IAPT are amongst the topics that have been captured by a particular viewpoint and its activists. What follows capture is that debate is shut down, information restricted. Certain topics are being precluded from teaching and some psychologists are being maligned. Deeply unfair accusations of transphobia, sexism, racism, classism (the list grows daily) are never challenged by the BPS. This is aided and abetted by The Psychologist which actively fails to give balanced coverage to all legitimate views. Members have told us how their contributions have summarily been spiked in the in-house publications. It is not for the BPS to enter party politics and campaign, for example, on specifics such as Universal Credit. Rather, it should be making available the best research on poverty in relation to child development, adult mental health, crime and suchlike, and vigorously bringing this to the attention of politicians and decision makers. The same applies, as with the topics covered above and numerous others, to public awareness of the best evidenced range of views within which individual people are making the kinds of choices that many face and which will often change the course of their lives. This does not include rushing to be a signatory to a range of worthy campaigns (and how is the decision to sign – or not – made?). These psychological matters are serious.

The Results of Misgovernance are Failing the Public

The well-staffed, wealthy but seriously misgoverned charity that is the current British Psychological Society continues to fail its members and the public on the most crucial of standards, and for this we will continue to hold it to account.  We have hoped to see moves for radical change which would enable open communications with the large membership, bottom-up consultations and an inflow of new actively welcomed volunteers.  We hope to see new healthy structures at the top of the organisation, independent lay people as trustees. We believe it is only then that the BPS will serve the membership and the public as it should. Sadly, it just is not happening and there are no signs, despite the recent talk of ‘crossroads’, change programmes and tinkering with governance, that the change will come from genuine reflection within. Perhaps, therefore, it must come from without.

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Notes and Links

  1. Why the blog and why now? Charity Commission to Blog Author: “We are currently engaging with the society over a number of issues and have found deficiencies in some areas of operation” https://bpswatch.com/2020/11/20/why-the-blog-and-why-now/ 
  2. https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/How%20we%20work/BPS%20Royal%20Charter%20and%20Statues.pdf
  3. https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/Policy/Policy%20-%20Files/BPS%20Code%20of%20Ethics%20and%20Conduct%20%28Updated%20July%202018%29.pdf
  4. https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/guidelines-psychologists-working-gender-sexuality-and-relationship-diversity 
  5. https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.1778correction 

“The results demonstrated no advantage of surgery in relation to subsequent mood or anxiety disorder-related health care visits or prescriptions or hospitalizations following suicide attempts in that comparison. Given that the study used neither a prospective cohort design nor a randomized controlled trial design, the conclusion that “the longitudinal association between gender-affirming surgery and lower use of mental health treatment lends support to the decision to provide gender-affirming surgeries to transgender individuals who seek them” is too strong”.

  1. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-30/august-2017/positives-negatives-and-empirical-reasoning 
  2. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-26/edition-5/news
  3. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-30/february-2017/no-congratulations-here
  4. https://www.thecut.com/article/false-memory-syndrome-controversy.html 
  5. https://www.courttv.com/title/8-4-21-the-jinx-murder-trial-intense-cross-examination-of-memory-expert/
  6. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-34/april-2021/not-good-look 
  7. https://behavioralscientist.org/long-winding-road-125-years-american-psychological-association/ 
  8. See Dr. Kevin Felstead, Communications Director, British False Memory Society reveal their strategy at I hour 4 minutes in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WsY-AqM4Y8 
  9. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/sep/02/millions-children-religious-groups-vulnerable-abuse-england-and-wales
  10. https://bpswatch.com/category/false-memory-syndrome/
  11. https://bpswatch.com/category/prescribing-rights/
  12. https://bpswatch.com/category/iapt/
  13. https://bpswatch.com/2021/09/07/bps-bullshit/ 
  14. https://bpswatch.com/2021/09/14/what-this-blog-is-about-a-re-statement/ 
"The Psychologist", Academic freedom and censorship, Board of Trustees, Gender, 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. 

Board of Trustees, Gender, Governance

Sins of omission – more rhetoric of justification from the BPS Board of Trustees

From the Editors of BPSWatch…

The crisis of governance in the BPS has been rumbling on for the past year. Slowly journalistic interest appeared, with articles in Third Sector and the Daily Telegraph leaking to the public what the BPS Board or The Psychologist had failed to disclose to the membership. This invites us to reflect on what is not said as well as what is said, when considering organisational rhetoric to justify the status quo (philosophers interested in absence dub this an ‘omissive critique’.).  

For those of us who think a better future must start with an honest reflection on the present, then we cannot rely on the preferred account of reality declared by the BPS Board of Trustees (BoT). They are not the whole problem (that is systemic and cultural as we have noted in several of our postings) but they are the current living proof of that deeper and longer problematic picture.  In that context, we now turn to a brief omissive critique of an important Board statement.

The Board response to the recent article in the Daily Telegraph

On April 26th 2021, Hayley Dixon in the Daily Telegraph provided us with a rough but accurate sketch of the governance crisis and its consequences (see here). Here we provide in full the ‘official’ response offered from ’the BPS’ then next day (see here).

Responding to an article in the Daily Telegraph, Interim Chair of the Board of Trustees, Professor Carol McGuinness said:

For more than a century, the British Psychological Society has promoted the practice of psychology and advanced professional thinking on often complex and contentious issues. With more than 60,000 diverse members, debates on professional issues are often vigorous and there is sometimes heated disagreement between our members.

The past 18 months have been turbulent for the BPS as we go through a process of significant and much needed organisational transformation. During this period several working groups have considered very sensitive topics which have gone through an expert and democratic process.

Our guidelines for psychologists working with gender, sexuality and relationship diversity are not, in our view, at all contentious. They require our members not to discriminate against individuals and to treat them with respect. This includes the use of appropriate, inclusive language, which all patients and clients should be able to expect.

The guidelines relate to adults and young people and not to the treatment of children, and professionals understand the difference. Our guidance does not contain any reference to the prescribing of puberty blockers for children under the age of 16.

There is general debate across the health sector on the extension of limited prescribing rights for different professions, something that has brought benefits to patients through, for example, the work of nurse prescribers. There are strong views among our members about whether some psychologists should be granted prescribing rights, with vigorous positions presented by those both for and against this potential change.

However, our research to date on prescribing rights, following a two-year consultation process – that it could be useful in certain settings – is simply a contribution to the debate.

The debate on prescribing has no connection whatsoever to our guidance on gender, sexuality and relationship diversity. We have always been clear that the issue of prescribing rights will require further debate and indeed the BPS does not currently have a fixed position on this issue. We have repeatedly stated that we will continue to listen to and engage with our members on this important issue.

Ultimately, the BPS does not have the power to decide on this issue, as it is a process governed by Parliament following extensive public consultation. We are disappointed that the Daily Telegraph has chosen to repeat the views of a small minority of BPS members who are unwilling to accept the outcome of our consultations and policy positions.

As a board of trustees we have been open about the need for improvements across the society which is why we committed a significant amount of money to our ongoing three-year transformation programme. The BPS is not perfect, and there is always room for improvement in any organisation.

It is clear to us that stronger governance processes will be required in the future, and this work is well underway. We have kept the Charity Commission fully informed of developments throughout and continue to engage with them.”

An ommisive critique of the statement

The reader can draw their own immediate conclusions about the adequacy of this response. Here we only want to list what was not said in this statement.

1.  Professor McGuinness was voted into the interim Chair role of the BoT in the wake of the resignations of both the President and Vice President (see here and here – you may need to register (free) to access these articles). This reflected a wilful refusal of the Board to comply with Statute 20 of the Society: the chairing role should have been handed over immediately to the Chair Elect. Her authority in the Chair is at best dubious and at worst totally illegitimate. The naïve reader would be unaware of this legitimation challenge for the Board still today. 

2. The allusion to diverse views and heated debate does not mention that debate has been actively blocked, with articles censored (see here), review groups closed down and lobbying about policies ignored.

3.   The statement does not mention the routine use of threats of legal action against Society members and others such as accusing dissatisfied complainants of harassment in pursuit of their case.

4.   Many objections have been raised about the very lack of the democracy and full expertise drawn upon in policy formation in the Society. These have been ignored in relation to the prescribing debacle, the contentious gender document and the peremptory closure of the memory and law group.

5.   Describing the gender document as ‘not at all contentious’ fails to mention those objecting, on legitimate grounds, to it both before and after the legal change on December 1st 2020. However, the prefix ‘in our view’ is relevant because this reveals the self-interest in depicting reality in a particular manner. 

6.  The claim that there is no connection between the prescribing and the gender polices fails to mention the overlap of decision-makers in the two groups and the fact that a consideration of hormone prescription was part of the first of them.

7.   The BoT are ‘disappointed’ in the article from Hayley Dixon, but the statement does not mention that the BPS was unhelpful  and, we believe, invoked legal threats about its publication. We understand that other approaches from Third Sector encountered the same aggressive non-cooperation. Journalists encountering such resistance tend to suspect that a story is worth telling.

8.   The commitment proffered about the change programme in the BPS as an organisational solution assumes that it will work in the absence of honest reflection about the current crisis of both legitimacy and governance: the very point we keep repeating and illustrating on this blog.

9.   The claim that the BoT continues ‘to engage’ with the Charity Commission is the most important rhetorical query for us. To what degree has that engagement been necessary and why? Will they now make all the changes necessary to bring the Society into regulatory compliance? Does the BoT even admit that any changes need to be made? If so will the Trustees need to resign and a fresh start made under completely new governance arrangements?

These questions are all important, the response from Professor McGuinness offers us no clues at all. Surely the membership deserves a full and frank statement about all of these matters, if the alleged principle of openness and transparency is to be put into practice. 

The Editors, BPSWatch.

Gender, Governance

How Did We Get Into This Mess?

David Pilgrim posts….

The recent description of the BPS as a ‘stultifying bureaucracy’, characterised by ‘administrative incompetence and deliberate procrastination’, seems to be completely fair comment. The evidence to confirm the conclusion, using a range of case studies, was sent in our dossier to the Charity Commission, which I summarised in the earlier posting The Mess We Are In. 

Do all charities descend into these cultural norms: are they all on the same tramlines of determination? Possibly the tendency is there in for all, but clearly some of them function better than others. Moreover, when the whistle is blown on problems such as those in the dossier, they do not all react in the same way. As in all open human systems, there is variability of outcome and so precise predictions are offered at our peril. So, we might ask, what is peculiar about the BPS? Its concrete singularity as a dysfunctional charity bears examination. 

A personal look back

My own starting point is a memory from long ago when I had just qualified as a clinical psychologist. I was at a conference and was chatting in the bar with Don Bannister about the BPS (a body I had recently joined but knew little about). For those who do not know the name, he was a leader in personal construct psychology, who never shied away from criticising his own discipline. Don was a smart and impish intellectual. 

This was in the late 1970s, and I vaguely saw the Society as probably a stuffy but benign organisation, whereas Don had already seen it for what it was. He was of the view that on paper the BPS was indeed a democratic membership organisation. However, in actual practice, this was not the case. The reason, he argued, was that only a self-selecting group of psychologists could be bothered with its bureaucratic intricacies (for their own personality or careerist reasons). They then got their feet under the table and would not budge for years on end. 

Today that picture still remains obvious and is why I describe the organisation not just as a ‘bureaucracy’ but also an ‘oligarchy’. I would re-frame the combination as this: it is an oligarchy that uses bureaucratic means to protect the status quo and ward off critical scrutiny. In Orwellian fashion it uses the rhetoric of democracy and transparency to do the very opposite of its claims. Our dossier offers extensive evidence for that conclusion. 

Another rhetorical point to note is that ‘recycled’ bureaucratic authority is not declared publicly in a state of shame about personally monopolising a democratic structure. Instead, these oligarchs see themselves clearly as serving the organisation and its membership; a point they make proudly on their CVs and personal websites.  (The bankrolling of some of them came to an end just a few years ago, but the status implications remain the same for those working for expenses only.) Of course, some people genuinely move in and on quickly, in a spirit of true democracy but many do not.

As confirmatory evidence that Don Bannister had got it about right, another but more recent memory comes to mind. In 2015, with John Hall and Graham Turpin I edited a book (sponsored by both the Division of Clinical Psychology and the History & Philosophy Section), Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives. It was launched at the DCP Conference and was discussed enthusiastically. 

Many of the contributors to the book, who were on the brink of launching the break away group the Association of Clinical Psychologists (ACP), came to the launch. However, out of disdain for the legitimacy of the DCP and the BPS they refused to pay the conference fee.  These aging rebels were of the understandable view that they had written their contributions pro bono so why pay? They pitched up anyway and, in a proud act of delinquency, they set up a table and offered their very own prepared laminated badges for those going into the room. The game was up; these were psychologists who themselves had played by the rules of the bureaucratic oligarchy for many years and could not take it anymore.

Cultural history

Here are some ideas about history to account for the above state of affairs. First, from the outset, the emerging autonomy of psychology in Britain tussled with the established disciplines in the academy of philosophy and medicine. Both, in their own way, tried to constrain its development or colonise its agenda. This created a scenario of assertiveness (and some might say arrogance) for the fledgling discipline of psychology in the early 20th century. The knowledge base of the discipline may have been contested but the self-confidence of all concerned, whatever their competing views, soon became evident. 

Second, until the second half of the 20th century academic psychologists in the Society dominated its leadership, placing those going off to professionalise their wares in applied settings in a secondary position. This led to a paradox of the latter legitimising psychology in public life externally but the Society itself being more dominated by academic leaders internally. A complaint then of applied psychologists was that they had less power than academics and their concerns were not taken as seriously. The BPS was established as a learned society primarily, with its unifying characteristic of being an academic discipline. Its professional applications, which eventually were expressed in its Divisional structure seen today, were self-confident but they also, of necessity, played second fiddle politically to the legacy of organisational history.  

The formation of the ACP was one eventual culmination of the contradictions of this legacy. I assume similar imagined futures for applied psychologists in the other Divisions are now abroad.  The tension was manifested by a trend over time for applied psychologists to put themselves forwards more for the role of President, though this did not quieten disaffection in Divisional ranks. Moreover, Presidents, whatever their background in the discipline, have tended to ensure cultural reproduction, rather than challenge fundamental organisational roles and norms. When challenge has occurred, it has been met with systemic resistance and personal animosity to the attempted new broom. The genuinely challenging President is a marked man or woman in the BPS.

A recent example of the continuing dominance of academic psychologists being in tension with the views of applied psychologists was the Memory and Law debacle. Collusion between academics on the Research Board ensured that experimentalists favouring the claims of the False Memory Society had taken precedence over the evidence from applied psychology of widespread child sexual abuse in Society. The rapid closure of the group meant that the latter cautions were not to be fully reviewed, with the public protection implications left free floating. As a relevant aside here, I attended the tense exploratory meeting to relaunch this now aborted group in 2018. I applied to be on the substantive group, in order to ensure a proper discussion of the scale and mental health consequences of child sexual abuse. My application to join the substantive group was rejected, despite the fact that I had just finished the book Child Sexual Abuse: Moral Panic or State of Denial? I was given no explanation by a senior manager, who was not a psychologist. She has now left and. I have been unable to ascertain who advised her to reject me and on what grounds. 

Third, the separation of the applied from academic wings culminated in the Society abandoning a unified investigatory and disciplinary system to ensure public protection. This then left the Society with no clear role, embarrassingly leaving the matter of ethical impropriety to regulatory bodies like the HCPC on the one hand or employers on the other. Justice for complainants remains then a hit and miss affair.  We are in the process of preparing a fuller post about this. If selective management attention is in doubt about this gap in the system, witness how the complaints process is applied assiduously in some cases, while others are just ignored. This is not just inefficiency (though it includes that). It is mainly about interest work that inflects what is investigated properly and what is treated in a tawdry fashion. For example, anyone seriously challenging the status quo about a flawed policy is simply ignored (emails are not answered) or the complaint peters out, with no serious discussion of learning from the process by those running the Society. If a training film was needed on how not to be a ‘learning organisation’, the BPS would be an excellent start. 

Fourth, in the past few years the more general shift in organisations to the New Public Management Model and its increasing reliance on digital governance (‘computer says “no”’) has been obvious in the Society. This brings with it the same problems witnessed first in the NHS and then in higher education, with a new management class emerging to control all others. Once this emerges, considerations about the power, status and salaries of this new management elite predominate in decision-making. A ponderous slow-moving bureaucracy then is ensured. Culturally now there is the added sense of being in a lesser amusing episode of The Thick of It, with the unending obsession of BPS leaders with control over both information and people. In this case, ipso facto, this has been at the expense of openness and transparency and a healthy version of membership democracy. Moreover, unlike in the NHS and higher education, where senior managers have often actually had some proper role in their organisations over many years, in the Third Sector we witness a form of managerialism, which can be readily disconnected from the content of the employing body.

Democracy and managerialism in tension

Why should senior managers in the BPS genuinely care about outcomes preferred by the membership, or ensure lay representation within management structures like the Board of Trustees? Like politicians, their short-term interest is mainly in their own domain of power and influence. Other communities of interest might undermine managerialism and so they are instrumentally ignored, or control sought over them. Unlike its ordinary members, managers have no long-term commitment to the Society. The departed employee who kept me out of the Memory and Law group was symptomatic of this here today, gone tomorrow, managerialist culture. Witness the history of the recently and suddenly departed Finance Director, who moved on to a completely different charity before Christmas. As usual, the membership had to find out about this fact; they were not informed.

The oligarchy I describe here and in previous postings then reflects that convergence of interest between a core group of elected or appointed psychologists hanging around in the Society, for years on end, with these career managers.  Thus the recycled authority of the same names (tipped off to me in the late 1970s by Don Bannister) no longer represents the single elite group in the Society. It is now jostling for position with the new senior managers, leaving ordinary members and the general public demoted in importance or out in the cold. 

For those who are prepared to enter the Machiavellian world of this new political amalgam, and work hard at that insinuation, there are certainly gains to be made. This has been evident in the capture of sub-systems by some activists from within identity politics. Witness their persistent and recurring role over the BPS policies on gender, prescribing rights and the Memorandum of Understanding about conversion therapy. In some cases, this has meant policy indolence in the face of legal circumstances. 

For example, the Judicial Review in December 2020 changed the law on biomedical paediatric gender transition. The BPS should have immediately reviewed its policies of relevance but has refused to do so, despite representations. Its magazine The Psychologist instead of reporting the Judicial Review as a game changing legal event and exploring its ethical implications for research and practice instead issued a single pre-prepared biased account, in defiance of the unanimous judicial ruling. Witness also how managers in the BPS have signally failed to rectify the implications of this policy capture in the public interest, with most members probably being unaware of the chicanery involved. This same point applies to those representing the biased interests of the False Memory Society, noted above, embedded in the Research Board over many years.

What Next?

Where is all this going? One scenario is more of the same. The Board of Trustees might continue with its ‘problem what problem?’ approach. It will just carry on protecting the incumbent interests of the oligarchy, with its wilful blindness to endemic poor governance. (An exception here was the resignation recently of the Deputy President, citing the latter as the main reason.) Another is that more and more members will leave in frustration and this might coalesce into new organisational formations, in addition to the ACP. If this is a large fracture, with applied psychology setting up shop elsewhere, then the BPS may need to re-name itself something like ‘The Society for Psychology Graduates’. A final scenario is that a root and branch reform of the Society will ensue, to at last ensure its proper governance, prompted by a combination of press interest and Charity Commission engagement and investigation.

Watch this space.

Academic freedom and censorship, Gender, Governance

David Pilgrim’s ‘disappearing’ article

This is the article referred to in David’s previous post which was agreed for publication in DCP Forum (March 2020) but spiked by BPS office. We would also point you to a post also addressing issues of freedom of expression which did ‘not make the cut’, in that case, for The Psychologist.

GIVING AND TAKING OFFENCE

David Pilgrim

Recently clinical psychologists have reported their views on giving and receiving offence and how they might be managed within the profession. This topic reflects a wider historical ethical debate about freedom of expression in speech and writing. The traditional liberal guidance of J.S. Mill is outlined, followed by a discussion of fresh norms about diversity within identity politics, since the ‘postmodern turn’ in the 1980s. It is argued that the wisdom of the first position is being undermined by the latter and that newer well-meant libertarian intentions have culminated at times in authoritarian outcomes.

Over the past year, two seemingly unrelated controversies within British clinical psychology have emerged. The first I was part of (about transgender) and the second I was not (the slavery presentation in Liverpool at the group of trainers’ conference). Both encouraged substantial and illuminating correspondence in these pages. The topics were seemingly unrelated but what linked them was the matter of personal offence and how it could, or should, be managed in the profession. 

In my original piece on sex and gender (Clinical Psychology Forum 319) I was not only pleased that the editor published the piece but also that he then welcomed correspondence, whether it was supportive or critical. I was less pleased by efforts on the part of some to explore the threat of litigation in an effort to constrain serious debate about an important public policy matter and the BPS played its role in this regard. For example, material was deliberately delayed for publication and the editor was instructed to print a letter of complaint sent to the BPS and he was found lacking for not making clear that my view in the original piece was not that of either the Society or the DCP. (Please take the same clichéd disclaimer into account for this piece as well.)

Arguably this was a storm in a teacup: eventually people said what they wanted to say. For now freedom of expression was preserved. It was though under threat, raising the question of why we are bothered about it at all. After all, in the era of social media everyone is free to say anything they want apparently. However, the counter to the latter view is that de facto censorship in a new guise has emerged with the ‘post-truth’ society, where asserted personal opinion, fantasy and jettisoned cautions surrounding academic knowledge all mix in the same social media porridge.  Now, more than ever, the matter of freedom of expression is important for the sake of both academic integrity and social justice in any society claiming to be democratic.

Liberalism and democracy

John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty (Mill, 1859/1974) argued that we must be free to express ourselves and we must be tolerant of views and those expressing them, even if we find both disagreeable. His advice was not absolute though; he offered two caveats. First, with freedom comes responsibility. This means that we might do our best to be considerate about the impact of our expressed views. If we are reckless, then it might be gratuitously hurtful and so this should be weighed in the balance by any responsible speaker or writer. 

That weighing up process is context-bound and so neat strictures to guide its success are hard to come by, but it does bring into play the question of intention. On the one hand there might be the regrettable mistake and the complexities of its conscious and unconscious elements; hence the discussion of the need to consider ‘whiteness’ by well-meaning white people in the contention I noted above at the trainers’ meeting. On the other hand there can be the deliberate expression of hateful or disparaging spite for others. The Nazis cast the Jews at every opportunity as being ‘vermin’ and we now know that if people are depicted as being sub-human, then that readily warrants their physical violation (Vicki et al.  2013). This large gap between an error of judgment and knowing hatred and all stops in between is what makes the definition of ‘hate speech’ so difficult. It might be defined as anything that causes offence and so the criterion of ‘hurt’ is relevant but not definitive. For those in the Abrahamic traditions any expressed contempt for God is blasphemy (and so is experienced as hurtful and might evoke reactive anger) but for the convinced atheist it is just fair comment, whether or not it is intended to offend others.   

Mill’s second caveat about restraint is therefore more certain: freedom of expression may encourage or legitimises actual violence against others. He was alluding to the difference between hard and soft power. The rhyme learned in childhood that, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is flawed because Mill in his first caution conceded that words can be indeed be hurtful. The question today is whether that outcome is the necessary and sufficient condition for suppressing or punishing freedom of expression. A much stronger claim for restraint applies under his second caveat about the encouragement of violence. When violence actually occurs, his point is proven.

Well over a hundred years after Mill’s defence of freedom of expression with its caveats, we are in the midst of a paradox: newer currents of political philosophy have emphasised a form of libertarianism, which is somewhat different from his classic liberalism. Below I argue that this has culminated not in protected freedom but dogmatic intolerance. Like the well-meaning white person not reflecting on their whiteness, the well-meaning new libertarian defending diversity may end up failing in their good intentions to such a degree that an opposite or different outcome accrues. 

Distinctions and dilemmas 

When we come to reflect on the tension between Mill’s liberalism and more recent arguments, we can start with two distinctions. These may mingle confusingly at times in both serious academic debates and in daily puerile social media exchanges. When this blurring occurs, more heat than light might be generated, as protagonists on all sides are caught up in the common experience of swelling righteous indignation, despite holding completely opposing views.  For clarity then we can note:

1 the distinction between an offensive view and the person expressing it: the challenge of ad hominem logic and; 

2 the distinction between identifying offensive views and identifying effective ways of reducing or eliminating those views: the challenge of the pragmatics of the social control of offence to others.

The first of these once was very clear cut and it guided all academic discourse; we learned that we should always ‘play the ball and not the man’ (apologies for the legacy of sexism here). The adage seems to have now been abandoned, with the rise of a different ethical orientation since the ‘postmodern turn’ of the 1980s. That emerged from, and was underpinned by, the cross-currents of post-structuralism, Third Wave feminism and Queer Theory, as well as their direct political expression in our now taken for granted identity politics. This constellation reflected the ‘perspectivism’ of the idealist philosophical tradition, traceable in modern times to Nietzsche, and the rejection of a realist stance on ontology, with its focus on truths and facts. 

Today the distinction between a view (offensive or otherwise) and the speaker or writer holding that view no longer exists in the minds of many. More than that, it is one’s social group membership or social position that might be taken to singularly determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of one’s view. It is not the virtue, cogency or empirical validity of what is being expressed. If a speaker or writer is deemed to be in a state of privilege, then this may then warrant dismissing anything they are saying. The postmodern turn has installed a new version of political and ethical legitimacy, epistemological privilege, which emerges from the ‘lived experience’ of some people and not others. 

For example, in the contention about transgender, a ‘cis person’ arguing that sex is not socially constructed, or that the obligation to affirm a child’s self-definition of their gender could expose them to iatrogenic risk, might be dismissed immediately as being transphobic and illegitimate, not because of the quality of their arguments and the evidence offered but because they are not themselves transgender. The neologism of ‘cis’ was only made possible because of this new postmodern logic (Sigush, 1998) and in turn this has led in academic research to a confusing conflation of sex and gender, when describing subjects or participants (Haig, 2004). ‘Cis’ is only meaningful to those who invented it (and those who are now accepting of its validity). This may cause offence to those (natal women in particular) who resent being cast as less worthy in their view about being a woman than the view of a transwoman.  For now the NHS has retained an ambivalent policy, with both biological sex and self-identified gender being noted, making record keeping challenging (Dahlen, 2020; https://medium.com/@anneharperwright/sex-gender). Some forms of pathology are unambiguously sex-linked (e.g. cervical and prostate cancer) and so this is important to recognise as a material reality informing decisions about prevention, diagnosis and disease management in health services. 

Turning to attempts to socially control offensive views, this has included appeals to legalism and codes of practice to ensure the prevention of hurt, not just violence, rendering Mill’s views on liberty precarious. There has been a ‘cancel culture’ in which those in the public eye expressing unpopular views are attacked and their reputation discarded. There has been direct action from protesters on our campuses (‘no platforming’). There have been acts of violence or potential violence from trans activists, such as bomb threats to women’s meetings discussing sex and gender. There have been gender critical views on social media being deemed as hate speech, warranting police investigation. There has been professional guidance issued that implies that gender critical arguments, or those respecting traditional scientific assumptions about mammalian sexual dimorphism, reflect a form of ethical deficit on the part of any psychologist holding such views. 

If this point is in doubt then the reader can consult the relevant guidance issued last year on ‘gender, sexuality and relationship diversity’ (BPS, 2019). The guilt or fear from a psychologist about their views on sex and gender, which to date have been ‘off message’, according to the guidance, invite new forms of compliance or anxious restraint in speaking out about their concerns.  The document focuses on the habitual obligation to affirm gender self-identification, in accordance with the ideological roots of the postmodern turn I noted above. Counter-views or scepticism from those not under its sway, whether they are philosophical realists, concerned clinicians working with children or gender critical feminists, are rendered ethically suspect and, not surprisingly, their views are absent from the document. 

The effective social control of experienced offence is not easy to achieve. In this case, the core stricture in the document, is about the intersubjective subtleties of respect for and belief in what others say about themselves. But why in social interactions should we always uncritically trust the self-statements of others? For example, we might consider the person to be mistaken, lying or even deluded. These options are the bread and butter of our daily social contract with others. 

Even when less ambiguous blanket moralisations have been raised to well-intentioned legal powers, their effectiveness has been in doubt. For example, the expression of Nazi ideology is proscribed in Germany. Holocaust deniers have been imprisoned and Nazi symbols are banned but the far right has not only survived with a swagger, it once again is on the rise. Thus legal measures do not eliminate prejudice and the hatred of others, even if they may have a contributory role in raising awareness about them. Even the latter is difficult to determine empirically in open social systems, with so many other processes at play. 

The use of the law is not only a blunt instrument for the social control of offence, it can also lead to precarious outcomes. For example, Deborah Lipstadt accused the ultra-right wing historian, David Irving, of holocaust denial in her widely read book (Lipstadt, 1994). Irving then sued her for libel but he was unsuccessful. However, as Warburton (2009) notes, Lipstadt needed the principled support and substantial financing of her international publisher, Penguin, to rebut Irving, whereas others may have been less fortuitous in having such resources. What secured the truth about the holocaust was not the law (in this case of libel) but freedom of expression (n.b Lipstadt’s, not Irving’s). For Lipstadt, the systematic murder of six million European Jews was not just another ‘perspective’ but simply the truth (n.b. no speech marks) that deserved a clear verification. That truth had to be (re)established by the free pursuit of unfettered intellectual inquiry, including viewpoints being expressed along the way from Lipstadt.  

If legal means of social control of hateful bigotry are not failsafe, then non-legalistic forms of influence may have some impact, without compromising the principle of freedom of expression. Satire and other forms of humour against bigotry actively use that principle in order to make the point. Also, the primary socialisation that encourages sensitivity about respect for all human beings and their diverse viewpoints might be altered within families and schools. All this being said, at all times freedom of expression will still be at risk. It is a fragile principle, no more so than when one party in a field of contention seeks to enforce their own particular version of expression and to suppress others. 

My own view is that the BPS Guidance document I note above has been captured by that newly emergent tendency to enforce a principle of singularity of viewpoint. This trend has deliberately discarded older traditions, about the rehearsal of competing viewpoints, which eschewed ad hominem reasoning. Now to simply discuss a sceptical position about trans-affirmative ideology and more importantly to defend the right to discuss it renders the dissenter ethically inferior (which is possible but is not a given) and their view as requiring no logical or empirical rebuttal (which is absurd because it is required). Within this new norm, open-ended diversity is liberally encouraged and celebrated as being virtuous except in cases where views are disapproved of by those promoting that diversity (Benn Michaels, 2006). 

These new libertarians have thereby become authoritarians at the blink of an eye. Their lack of ethical plausibility is not just that they are authoritarian wolves in libertarian sheep’s clothing but also they expose the ultimate failure of identity politics to provide us with clear guidance on the meaning of social justice. Once diversity displaces or trumps equality it becomes a zero sum game, when the experientially-derived rights of transgender people are asserted against those of natal women who are their gender critical opponents, objecting to the second class citizen connotation of the term ‘cis’. How does anyone decide which epistemological privilege is superior to the other in this stand off?

For those less familiar with academic discussions of healthcare ethics, other relevant case studies can be noted. Some topics have been actively and freely debated (e.g. abortion and the de-pathologisation of homosexuality), whereas others temporarily have taken on a taboo status. One was the consideration on medical grounds for infanticide by Giubilini and Minerva (2013).  This led to some ethicists defending not the arguments made by these authors but their right to make those arguments, returning us to Mill’s axiom (Shackel, 2013).  

Conclusion

I think we are now at a cross-roads. The ethical questions about transgender and healthcare may be suppressed because for now the topic has been afforded a taboo status by the new libertarians I have discussed. Alternatively, we can insist on our right to explore those questions fully and responsibly and without fear of recriminations. That would mean permitting freely expressed views that do not disparage individuals, whatever their perspective and whether they are ‘trans’ or ‘cis, but which instead attends carefully to logic and the evidence available about the topic in contention. Ultimately blanket moralisations in human affairs, whether or not they are codified in laws or ethical strictures will fail to work in practice, so we may as well concede this point and agree instead on the defence of a frank, respectful and, of most importance, non-violent exchange.  

Finally, we can note that the conflation of views and those holding them has a double and limiting significance, because it restricts the topic under discussion to the personal alone. The person giving the offence and those receiving it are certainly part of the socio-ethical picture here, but they are not the whole picture. The content of their claims should also be open to respectful democratic scrutiny and debate.  That can only happen if first we all understand why freedom of expression must be defended in principle, provided its caveats and their impact fully considered. We may then be moved to uphold that defence in practice, in the face of likely criticism and censorious pressures.

References  

Benn Michaels, W. (2006) The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality New York: Holt.

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

Dahlen, S. (2020): De-sexing the medical record? An examination of sex versus gender identity in the General Medical Council’s trans healthcare ethical advice, The New Bioethics DOI: 10.1080/20502877.2020.1720429

Giubilini, A. and Minerva,  F. (2013) After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? Journal of Medical Ethics 39:261–3

Haig, D. (2004) The inexorable rise of gender and the decline of sex: social change in academic titles, 1945–2001. Archives of Sexual Behavior 33:87-96.

Lipstadt, D. (1994) Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory Harmondsworth: Penguin

Mill, J.S. (1859) On Liberty (Published in Penguin edition, 1974) Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Vicki, G.T., Osgood, D. and Phillips, S. (2013) Dehumanization and self-reported proclivity to torture prisoners of war. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49, 3, 325-332. 

Shackel, N. (2013) The fragility of freedom of speech. Journal of Medical Ethics 39: 5.

Sigush, V. (1998). The neosexual revolution. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 27, 4, 331-359

Warburton, N. (2009) Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Academic freedom and censorship, Gender, 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.  

Gender

Vexatious?

David Pilgrim posted

The problematic use of the term ‘vexatious’ by Heather Wood in her comment on my post (26 November), was made prior to the judicial review announcement (December, 1st 2020). Surely the ‘no debate’ position of those supporting the use of puberty blockers for children, with the trajectory that sets for later biomedical interventions, is no longer tenable. It is that notion of ‘no debate’ which reflects a vexatious position. Now psychologists, like others, should be debating this matter publicly and according to standard academic conventions of respect (i.e. avoiding ad hominem reasoning and weighing up evidential and ethical considerations in the round). 

Unfortunately, the parlous state of BPS governance in the past few years has not ensured this needed scenario. Instead the poor consultations about the revised Memorandum of Understanding on conversion therapy (NB the 2017 version, not the original in 2015), the now contested policy on gender and the incipient attempt by some to extend prescribing rights to psychologists (which might include hormones) have left us without a full and democratically deliberated set of policies from the Society. This leaves the acting CEO of the BPS in a difficult position when responding, for example, to the Judicial Review’s announcement. My hope is that people will contribute to this blog with their views on where this leaves us all now in relation to child protection and our work in the NHS. 

Gender, Governance

The Mess We Are In

Posted by David Pilgrim

The dossier to the Charity Commission

I will summarise the story of the efforts of a group of psychologists with whom I have been involved. We have engaged with the Charity Commission about  what we understand to be a highly dysfunctional organisation. We compiled a dossier of accounts and this was sent the Commission. At the outset, we were not necessarily aware of one another and nor were our concerns about the same topics. The range of the latter and the diversity of the complainants itself are telling. 

A common theme across the story of the emergent dossier is that all of us had genuinely tried to use the complaints process available. On each and every occasion this had failed miserably. Complaining to the Charity Commission was a tactic of last resort and neither frivolous nor mischievous. 

Moreover, in compiling the dossier we discovered that some other complainants had simply given up in a state of anger and demoralisation. Some left the Society exasperated. Others plodded on, motivated by a sense of clear injustice about the organisational failure that they were being victim of and were witnessing. 

The broad picture we were seeing was of the BPS being an evasive top heavy organisation that is insensitive to the ordinary and reasonable expectations of its members. (In a separate posting it will be useful for us to get to grips conceptually with the question ‘who or what is the BPS?’ but here for now I am referring to its Trustees and the employees of the Society it directs).

A further lesson at this stage of compiling the dossier was that it was obvious that as complainants we were the tip of the iceberg. However, we had no clear measure of what lay beneath the waterline. In sharing our accounts of frustration with the Society, we had a common experience. In the build up to each complaint our concerns were shared with trusted colleagues. Many of the latter often sympathised not just empathised: they concurred completely with the content of the complaint and were glad it was being made. However, they were too frightened to put their names publicly to a joint communication, be it a formal complaint or letter of concern. 

Psychologists in work, with mortgages and bills to pay, intuitively know that complaining (about anything which is serious) is not the best career move. In an addition, because of the controversial content of some of the complaints people also feared vilification on social media or even for their personal safety. For future reference we have learned that many people do not complain because of these understandable fears and so a functioning  membership organisation will have to work hard to encourage meaningful representative feedback, especially in the toxic culture of social media. When and if complaints are made in this contemporary context, then each one should be taken seriously and investigated speedily and efficiently. At present this is not the norm in the Society.

It is little surprising that the editors of this blog are experienced psychologists but, with the inevitability of time passing, they are also retired. Our careers cannot be damaged because they are in the past. As people who have been managers in the NHS, we also understand organisational complexity and dysfunction and the serious challenges of ensuring genuine probity. Those with more to lose than us were driven by important concerns about public protection and were not complaining for any personal gain. We were joining in a reasonable and reasoned effort of whistleblowing to the Charity Commission. Our campaign was value-driven, not perverse or vindictive. If successful it would rescue the BPS not lead to its downfall.  

Returning to the fallow period just prior to the dossier, gradually some of us fighting on with our complaints began to become aware of one another, via professional networks or collegial relationships. From this came the group decision to construct a joint document to send to the Charity Commission. Each case study provided was individually authored and left unedited, in relation to its style and content, for inclusion. However, a preface to the dossier was drafted and then agreed by all the contributors, in order to summarise for the investigators at the Commission the lessons obvious about systemic failings. Here I summarise those points from the preface for clarity for the reader here. There were seven separate case studies offered, followed by some observations of cross-cutting themes: 

1. The Memory Based Evidence Group was closed down without explanation. This review had been agreed in principle but now was closed in a peremptory manner by an unidentified BPS official. This now has implications for public protection, especially in relation to evidence about childhood trauma and the controversy about ‘false memories’. The expert literature review and consideration of contestation in the field are now stalled. Several efforts had been made to raise concerns about the inadequacy of the extant and outdated policy but they had been met with non-responses from the BPS.

2. Routine failures of the complaints process. This summarised empirical evidence for the Charity Commission, across a range of examples, of how the complaints process is both inefficient and at times is misused by senior elected and non-elected members of the Society to evade responsibility. These failures have included the latter referring down complaints about themselves to those more junior in the organisation for investigation

3.  Email petition to the BPS being flatly ignored about the risks of extending prescribing rights to psychologists. In this case, there was a complete failure to respond to a letter of concern, about a proposal under consultation by the Society, which was signed by over 100 members. This was sent to the CEO and the President and forwarded to the Chair of the Practice Board. Follow up mails were ignored. The complaint focused on the manipulation of the above consultation process, as well as the public activities of the Chair of the ‘Task and Finish Group’ leading the same consultation. She had already made public statements prejudicially in favour of a pro-prescribing position.  At the time of writing, these repeated representations have been ignored by the Trustees of the BPS.

4. Letters to the current President being ignored. Two letters were offered in evidence to the Charity Commission, referred to dishonest public communications by the Society and potential harm to minors. Neither of these letter received a reply.

5. Past financial irregularities reported and not investigated. The Charity Commission was supplied with evidence outlining financial and procedural irregularities, intimidation and policy breaches by senior elected and non-elected members of the Society. 

6. Complaints about the current policy of the BPS on gender were ignored. This reported a catalogue of failures to respond to a complaint, about the academic adequacy of this document, made over a period of several months in 2020. Concerns about the document failing to represent a range of critical voices in the discipline were dismissed and follow up letters were simply ignored. The CEO and Head of the Complaints Department also failed to respond, when requested to, by the Society President

7. Complaints about censorship and the subversion of academic freedom. This provided a detailed report of how these complaints were ignored or evaded, by both the CEO and the President. Interference with editorial independence and the censorship of articles agreed for publication were cited in evidence. The claims that the BPS is a ‘learned society’ were shown to be hollow rhetoric, given that today it cannot even defend academic freedom in relation to its own publishing custom and practice.

These seven case studies were offered then to illustrate current failures in the Society. Those submitting the dossier made the following summary points in its preface, for clarity to the Charity Commission:

1. There are repeated instances of serious reputational damage to the organisation and to members of the discipline and professions it represents and, even more gravely, of risk of harm to the public, including to minors.

2. There is a consistent pattern of senior salaried and non-salaried staff, including the current President, ignoring representations about serious matters put to them from ordinary members of the Society. This is reflected in emails being routinely unanswered. At times deceit and manipulation by salaried and non-salaried staff are evident.

3 Members of the Society feel ignored, demoralised and threatened, when they raise complaints. This is particularly concerning when the content of the latter relates to the protection of the public.

 4. The Trustee structure is not fit for purpose, being dominated by senior executives and non- elected post-holding psychologists. There are no lay members of the Board and thus no independent scrutiny. Letters of concern addressed to the Trustees are often not responded to. This gives a sense of a group acting in a defensive manner, in order to preserve the status quo and resist corrective feedback.

5. There are accounts of activities by senior salaried and non-salaried staff that may be described as threatening and intimidating. 

6. There is a lack of transparency regarding financial management and allegations of financial irregularities benefiting certain members of the organisation.

7. There has been a disregard of proper process in a number of areas, such as in formal consultations.

Conclusions about the mess we are in

My own view is that a root and branch reform to the Society is now required. The overall systemic failure is reflected in the emergence of a closed and self-protective leadership. We might call this a ‘cabal’ suffering from ‘groupthink’, or a slow to change and poorly accountable ‘rigid oligarchy’. These and other attributions now need to be explored publicly for their empirical fit. Whatever terms makes most sense is up for debate but what is not in doubt is that a core feature of probity expected in any charitable organisation is clearly missing. This refers to good practice in an organisation, of knowingly separating direction from oversight, with their working relationship then being transparent to anyone inside or outside of its confines. In particular, the Trustees should focus on oversight, but given the evidence offered to the Charity Commission this has been habitually absent. 

As far as direction is concerned, those leading the organisation in its executive wing need to have a clear set of aims, which are transparent and open to scrutiny. The daily operational aspects of the organisation should reflect that direction of travel and, when they do not, then corrective mechanisms should be put in place. That ongoing process and its degree of success should then be subject to routine critical scrutiny by independent Trustees. 

Currently in the BPS the Trustees are not independent and the oversight priorities expected of them are missing. What has emerged instead is that non-elected senior managers now dominate the Trustee culture, when they should be genuinely ‘in attendance’ in order to expose themselves to full scrutiny. These managers are not psychologists, and like football club managers, NHS Trust CEOs or university VCs they can pass through the system rapidly. (Contrast that scenario with the hundreds of years of BPS membership embodied in those writing the dossier described.) 

My interpretation at this stage of this faulty Trustee system is that a groupthink culture may have emerged and there is no independent presence, representing the public’s interest, to offer routine reality testing about successful oversight. Like many people, I am involved as a Trustee for a charity and this direction and oversight distinction is well known to even the smallest organisation, so how and why has it apparently gone missing as an organisational feature of the BPS? 

The latter is not insignificant, if its membership is a measure of its size and its public profile a feature of its role in wider society. Psychology is a popular undergraduate choice and psychologists now inform public policy and media discussions recurrently. Given this picture, the mess we are in requires serious consideration and rectification, given that the BPS is the organisation providing apparent legitimacy to, and public confidence in, the authoritative role of psychologists in wider society.

The concerns expressed above, from a group of psychologists now seeking to expose the operational and cultural failings of the BPS, pointedly are in relation to its current poor leadership and governance. For the bulk of those working in the organisation in more junior roles, they will be as much a victim of these failings as the members and the public. Those employees, as in most organisations, are decent hard working people but they are being asked at times to carry through dubious directives from above. 

Sometimes this is manifestly unfair (for example when junior staff are being asked to investigate complaints against their senior colleagues). The criticisms from the authors in the dossier quite clearly are not directed at this level of the organisation; our concern is solely with its leadership. A caveat to this is that poor leaders provide poor role models for those they lead and so no one, at this stage, can vouch for the empirical impact lower down the employment hierarchy.

If a root and branch reform fails to occur then, as with other dysfunctional organisations described in the past, homeostatic pressures will ensure that the same problems will recur. Particular risks evidenced from past organisational case studies include dealing with bad apples, rather than the state of the barrel, and ‘shooting the messenger’. Whistle-blowers typically are new to systems and not yet invested in, or compliant with, its cultural norms or they are people who have been chronically excluded from offering corrective feedback about poor practice. This galvanises them to speak out. Some passive bystanders on the inside, or on-looking nearby, then gradually join their ranks or come to admit the validity of the claims. 

Case studies are legion and revealed by inquiries into organisational failings in ‘scandal hospitals’, large business corporations, pension schemes and policing. While sex and money are often the drivers of individual malpractice, the recurring context is one of systems being isolated (culturally or physically) and affording the expression of those common human foibles. We cannot alter the ubiquity of the latter but we can reduce the conditions of possibility of their expression. Good governance and constant independent scrutiny are central to this task.

An irony is that whistle-blowers often initially are punished but, with time, they are then vindicated. Their mental health and careers might be casualties.  My hope is that we can rescue the organisational integrity of the BPS, without that price being paid by its members who are seeking remedial action. The next few months are important for ‘the BPS’.

Gender, Governance, Memory and the Law Group, Prescribing Rights

Why the blog and why now?

Charity Commission to Blog Author: “We are currently engaging with the society over a number of issues and have found deficiencies in some areas of operation”

The editors of this new blog, who are identified in the About Section above intend to try to inform members of the BPS about the issues of concern and generate a forum for discussion and disagreement. It is our contention that in this culture of a failing bureaucracy and resistance to scrutiny, the British Psychological Society had been subject to institutional capture by psychologists who are activists within frameworks of identity politics and by the cronyism of an in-group of psychologists. 

The results of this are serious and betray the Royal Charter and the fundamental purpose for which the Society was founded.

The current President Elect’s  election statement began with proposing that whilst the comment “For far too long it appears that the BPS has been run by paid staff for paid staff at the expense of members”…is  “…not the case, but it feels true because members’ and volunteers’ experience is that the service they pay for is not as it should be”. It is believed by the editors of this blog that the President Elect has received specific resistance from staff and trustees of the Society in the process of his taking up elected office.

Psychologists who complain to the Society find their communications are at worst repeatedly ignored or, if they get a response, their complaints are not properly investigated. A recent complainant who identified what they considered to be a serious breach of the Society’s Code of Conduct was merely told “we are a broad church”. The Society’s own complaints procedure is patently not followed by the anonymous “Complaints Team”. There have been instances where the mechanism for investigating a complaint against the CEO or senior staff has seemingly been for their juniors to deal with the complaint!

Psychologists with recognised professional and academic standing who have attempted to debate controversial areas of applied psychological practice have been censored and there has been interference with editorial decisions.

A recent letter signed by over 100 practicing psychologists disputing the conduct of a consultation process supposedly advising the NHS about prescribing rights has been completely ignored.

Guidelines relating to practice in complex and controversial areas have been produced which are totally unfit for purpose in that they are a polemic for one assessment and treatment approach and ignore serious ethical considerations. A clarification has been issued, not via a revision of the guidelines but by an unattributed BPS statement in The Psychologist. A group which had been reconvened to revisit another controversial issue has been wound up by the BPS on the grounds that “due to the high level of debate…. It hasn’t been possible to reach the consensus needed… after careful consideration the BPS Research Board has made the difficult decision to bring the work of the Memory Based Evidence Task and Finish Group to a close”. We believe shutting down is the opposite of what the members, the courts and the public have a right to expect from a Learned Society.

There will follow a series of posts looking in detail at serious problems surrounding the functioning of the British Psychological Society.

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Pat Harvey (Guinan)

BPS member No. 4810