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.  



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