"The Psychologist", 'False Memory Syndrome', Academic freedom and censorship, Expulsion of President-Elect, 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/ 
Governance

What this blog is about – a re-statement

Since starting this blog, in November 2020, we have had contact with a variety of people who have expressed their serious concerns about the state of the BPS. For some this has resulted in their resignation, for others it has left them hurt, damaged and vowing never to have anything more to do with the organisation they have been part of, and given their time freely to, over the years. Some have told us of their immense frustration with an organisation that frequently ignores communications or fails to respond acceptably to their queries and concerns.

Those leading the organisation (both elected and paid) have failed to manage its day-to-day running adequately, and have been, in the main, unable – or unwilling – to deal openly and properly with current and past mismanagement except by deceit and silence. There has been a clear and conscious rejection of any attempt to govern the Society’s business in a professional and open way as is required by the Charity Commission.  Financial irregularities have occurred, latterly the subject of police investigation. Staffing numbers and costs have spiralled, lines of accountability are ambiguous or absent, and the overall governing body, the Board of Trustees, has no membership which is in any sense independent, disregarding Charity Common requirements. This is patently a failing organisation. The leadership over many years has failed its members, failed the public and failed psychology as a discipline. The BPS has moved irrevocably to a state of unprecedented crisis.

Our primary aim is simple: to pressurise the Society to change and to be open about the dangerous consequences of its own history of misgovernance. We have no other agenda. A dossier was sent to the Charity Commission containing examples in relation to  censorship, various forms of policy capture and a totally broken complaints system. These case studies focused on malfunctioning organisational processes.  We are asking for honesty from its current leaders about its past, not simply bland assurances and blithe rhetoric about a potential future.

We wish to see a radically reformed and thriving society but we have no aspirations at all to acquire leadership roles in the future.  We do not align ourselves with any particular pressure groups. Contrary to a recent malicious tweet (unsupported by actual evidence or any attempt to check with us) we are in nobody’s pocket or in thrall to any specific group. Ironically, this is exactly the situation which we believe applies to some elements of the BPS itself – institutional capture by activists.  Whether other pressure groups like us or not is of no significance to us (unless this refers to the misgovernance question at the centre of our concern). Certain groups may view our existence as a chance to further their aims, but all we may share with them is a concern about misgovernance of the BPS and its consequences.

The fact that we address serious and controversial topics is because we wish to encourage their democratic discussion and a full and open debate. The BPS is routinely failing in this regard. Debate has been suppressed and biased policy formation has then accrued across a wide range of topics. We believe that current and previous BPS leaders have a duty to reject secrecy and reveal honestly where things have gone wrong so that discussion can take place. We are happy to post new examples of these types of failure. but our prime focus is on the malfunctioning organisational processes we have noted above. We are not in the business of “firing bullets” or promoting a particular stance on an issue.

Sadly, we do not believe that real change is imminent within the BPS. Familiar names of serial office holders still move into post or arrive on the Board of Trustees and people are still appointed to working groups by an opaque process from the Society coterie.  Despite many expressions of support and agreement with our views, many people feel unable to take their dissatisfaction further. We acknowledge that this is not easy or straightforward. Members have been threatened and intimidated, for example by themselves being accused of intimidation and bullying. Unless the serious and damaging dysfunctionality of the BPS is brought into the spotlight, however,  nothing substantial will change. Millions of pounds of members’ money will continue be spent on a so-called Change Programme that fixes nothing whatsoever of the root of dysfunction. So even if you do not feel able to write something for our blog (even with our offer of anonymity), please contact us and we would be happy to advise on what other channels may be open to you. 

We have all served the BPS to the best of abilities over the years and care deeply about both its future and the state of psychology in the UK. We will continue to be a critical friend for as long as it is necessary. 

BPSWatch Editorial Collective.

Board of Trustees, Expulsion of President-Elect, Governance

BPS Bullshit?

David Pilgrim writes…..

The failure of the BPS to establish a Board of truly independent Trustees in 1988 has had a profoundly adverse impact on its culture of governance. This missed opportunity to ensure transparency and accountability triggered an oligarchy of recycled names.  Their dominance was then disrupted by the incoming professional managers, with their variable understanding of, and commitment to, academic values aligned with a purported learned Society. Between them the oligarchy and the managers created a cabal, and one of its key requirements to retain power and credibility was a norm of concealment. Divided internally, they did agree on a policy of keeping outsiders in the dark, leaving blogs like this, or investigative journalists, to expose the inner workings of the BPS.

Philosophical concerns with concealment

As we are elaborate language-using social animals, reliant on mutual trust, personal credibility is an ongoing requirement for us all. For this reason, deception has been a recurring topic in Western philosophy. Pre-Socratic thinkers described the problem of concealment (of facts and intentions) as ‘lethe’. This referred to deception and forgetting or oblivion. A counter to it, in order to ensure human flourishing, was the pursuit of ‘alethic truth’.

Interest in the topic was re-animated in the 20th century. This was a period of unrelenting war, elaborated political and theocratic propaganda and new mass communication technologies. It prompted particular interest in concealment from key political novelists (e.g., Orwell, 1949; Zamyatin, 1924). ‘Doublethink’ and other Orwellian terms, such as ‘thoughtcrime’, are now a part of a lexicon of critique and cynicism in our recent post-truth culture, dominated by identity politics. Orwell no doubt is spinning in his grave.

This was an ‘age of extremes’ and ‘century of blood’ (Hobsbawm, 1992) and reflective thought about its consequences for honesty and decency abounded. From existential philosophers of the right (Heidegger, 1927) and the left (Sartre, 1943) we find an obsessive concern for authenticity. Sartre’s notion of ‘bad faith’ reminded us that deceit and self-deceit were joined at the hip in us all. To use the Sartrean-influenced phrase of Laing (1968), when discussing experience and communication, ‘we are all murderers and prostitutes’. 

Away from Continental reflection, Anglo-American philosophers also had similar concerns. Williams (2002) argued that the truth has two defining features: accuracy and sincerity. Bhaskar (1993) was more elaborate. For him alethic truth had three aspects: the ontological (objective facticity), the epistemological (knowledge claims) and the axiological (value judgments). To illustrate these three aspects of alethic truth, consider the ‘Burt affair’.

1 Is it true empirically that Burt falsified some of his data and invented names of authors in papers under his own editorial control?

 2 What theories or arguments were put forward to justify these accusations or defend or excuse his conduct?

3 Did the scandal undermine or support the credibility of British psychology and the political project of eugenics and why should these considerations matter to British society and its citizens?

Concealment in the vernacular

Another Anglo-American analytical philosopher of importance for our purposes was Frankfurt (1986/1988) who mapped ‘bullshit’ and its history in the 20th century. With alternative common descriptions (‘bull’ in military contexts and ‘bollocks’ in the British pub) bullshit grew in popularity as a dismissal from below of the rhetoric of those in power. While we are all capable of bullshit, elites (political, theocratic or managerial) have a vested interest in using it routinely to sustain their preferred version of reality, with a disregard for the truth. 

For clarity, bullshit does not refer narrowly to lying (Hardy, 2021). The liar, inveterate or occasional, like the truly honest person, is part of the same game. They both know what the truth is, but for a range of contingent personal or social reasons they opt to adopt a different approach to veracity. In particular, the liar will risk shame or guilt and censure and punishment if exposed, and these may be emotional considerations for them in the act of lying (and ambivalence about it).

By contrast, bullshit is both a personal and social process, whereby those dissimulating or evading the truth are indifferent to it. Their concerns are elsewhere, such as careerism, financial gain or personal survival and acceptance. The truth or otherwise, about this or that matter, is not a primary consideration for them, only egotistical gain. Their verbal or written statements might be truthful sometimes and not at others; this is merely a matter of instrumentality about which works, when. If they are caught out, they will rationalise or be evasive (i.e., they will bullshit more). ‘Damage limitation’ is a key tactic in the game of bullshit. No swords are fallen on or shame expressed; survival is what matters for the individual and homeostasis for their supporting culture.

Bullshitting individuals and bullshitting cultures

At times bullshit becomes a group process, as people with common interests opt to cover one another’s backs or conspire to evade a shared threat from without.  Organizational theorists now recognise it as being quite common (so the BPS cabal is in usual, if not in good, company), as Spicer (2020) outlines here:

Why is bullshit so common in some organizations? Existing explanations focus on the characteristics of bullshitters, the nature of the audience, and social structural factors which encourage bullshitting….I offer an alternative explanation: bullshitting is a social practice that organizational members engage with to become part of a speech community, to get things done in that community, and to reinforce their identity. When the practice of bullshitting works, it can gradually expand from a small group to take over an entire organization and industry. When bullshitting backfires, previously sacred concepts can become seen as empty and misleading talk.

Spicer lays out alternative explanations, with a favoured one, but of course in their own way they might all causally inflect different bullshitting organisations, case by case. Spicer distinguishes between bullshitting and lying (see above) and also emphasises that it is characterised by vacuous and misleading forms of communication. Deception is not necessarily a primary intention, but it is a frequent outcome. The primary intention is to maintain a version of reality that suits the bullshitter as an individual or as part of a group norm. As noted above, if the truth does that job, then that is fine. In the amoral pragmatic mindset of the bullshitter, either truth or lies might come in handy. 

The relevance of Spicer’s point about bullshit as a permeating organisational process, to the crisis in the BPS, is obvious. If a management culture, which wants to take control of the organization (it could be any organization for careerist managers) without reference to its espoused and traditional values, as a putative learned Society, then its credibility will be lost. When those values are discarded and the rhetorical gap, between claims of openness and actual secrecy, or academic freedom and actual censorship, becomes a chasm, then a serious credibility problem emerges. This is now the case in the BPS.

Bullshit of its very own

If the concept is overarching but also now commonplace, then what particular form has it taken in the BPS? What has been in its very own version of ‘empty and misleading talk’? BPS bullshit is generated on an ongoing basis to maintain the following mystifying version of organisational reality. Those inside the cabal probably really believe this bullshit, but increasingly the rest of us do not. Here are some examples of this point.

1 The complaints system is used selectively. Its existence provides a cover story for justice in the BPS. Members or the public are given the impression that it is an orderly and fair opportunity to establish the truth or otherwise of a grievance from the complainant. This is not true. It is a rabbit hole. Some complaints are ignored and those processed rarely lead to the complainant considering that they have been treated fairly. The complaints process is full of bullshit.

2 Unresolved concerns to the cabal, which the complainant keeps pursuing because they are unresolved, are turned into an accusation of them harassing staff. This evasion of accountability is an example of bullshit.

3 The BPS does, and it does not, process complaints against individual members. It all depends on what suits the interests of the cabal. This convenient selective attention is a form of bullshit.

4 The BPS Board is a charade, as it has not contained independent trustees since 1988. Its decisions and strategies are therefore all of dubious legitimacy. They constantly produce bullshit to justify their false and untenable position.

5 The oligarchy this has created over decades has generated a rhetoric of virtuous long service from a slow-moving elite group of psychologists. This has been a cover for their CV building, occasional financial sinecures and pursuit of their particular cognitive or political interests. This is more bullshit.

6 Policy capture, in light of points 4 and 5, has been rife but unacknowledged. Bullshit is used to cover up this process.

7 The Psychologist is not peer reviewed and, when called upon, it acts as a propaganda wing for the BPS Board. It has the semblance of an academically governed magazine, shop fronting the best of British psychology, but this is a charade.  This functions to ward off criticism of the organisational status quo and offers us more bullshit.

8 Financial misgovernance in the BPS has been present for the past 20 years but it has been covered up from the membership and the general public. In the past two years the bullshit generator in the BPS has been in overdrive.

9 The dysfunctional culture of the BPS was observed by consultants from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, who were so anxious about its character that they rejected any further engagement. The membership was not made aware of this scenario, which required exposure by an investigative journalist. The silence of the cabal and a preference of a ‘problem what problem?’ approach to the matter of its toxic culture is form of bullshit (the latter can include what is not said as well as what is said).

10 Anyone attempting to rectify all of this mystification and misgovernance is vilified and scapegoated (see the treatment of the radically reforming and now expelled President Elect).

This is a cue for the next and final section.

Presidential smoothers and shakers

Given the culture of bullshit that has accrued in the BPS since 1988, how have those with Presidential aspirations responded? This seems to have been on a continuum from total complicity to one of explicit challenge. In the middle have been those who have tinkered and left in despair or perplexity, while trying to retain some personal dignity and credibility. Most recently this might be a description that fits David Murphy and Hazel McLaughlin, who bailed out. Others have pushed a little harder while in post and were punished by their peers on the Board. This was the case with Peter Kinderman and James Hacker-Hughes. The sticker on the windscreen of their particular stalled Presidencies still reads, ‘Charity Commission Aware’. We might all benefit from a fuller public account of their experience at some point. Eventually we might all be interested to find out what the Charity Commission rules on misgovernance and legal non-compliance in the BPS. This has been a long time coming, which for now favours the survival of the cabal.

The extreme anchors on the spectrum of complicity have been prominent very recently. Ray Miller was president of the Society in 2006. Apart from this role he has also at various points been Chair of the Division of Clinical Psychology and Chair of the Professional Practice Board. He was Honorary Treasurer of the BPS between 2013-2019 and was a Trustee for thirteen (sic) years. In conversation with the then CEO Tim Cornford in 2006 he described himself very honestly and fairly as being a ‘BPS junkie’ since 1984 (The Psychologist, 2006). He was called upon to Chair the rigged ‘appeal’ by the President-Elect Nigel MacLennan, after his expulsion. 

Note well, this was in the wake of trumped-up charges about MacLennan allegedly bullying a person who he had never named, accused, had any communication with or knowingly met. The truth of this scandal will eventually be heard, but for now we have had to suffer the scurrilous video on YouTube, fronted on behalf of the cabal by Carol McGuinness. This disparaged MacLennan and closed down his professional career. Moreover, it oozed bullshit. It was broadcast very publicly and very deliberately before the appeal against the decision was even heard. It contained the vacuous phrases about it being a ‘challenging year’ (for whom and about what?) and the Society being ‘at a crossroads’ (the direction signs saying what – ‘heaven this way, hell that’ or maybe ‘new honesty in that direction versus more bullshit in the other’)?

Thus, Ray Miller, a stalwart and beneficiary of the BPS culture for over thirty years, was asked to be part of this charade offering the face validity of his ‘independence’. He graciously accepted the role, and the stitch up of MacLennan was completed. In what possible sense (logical or empirical) was he independent of the cabal and the long-standing culture of misgovernance it continued to defend?  Only the wilfully blind could believe that this personal juxtaposition was anything but a stark contrast between one President who was, to use his own words a ‘BPS junkie’, and another who wanted to challenge openly the malfunctioning culture that was so addictive to a self-interested oligarchy. This whole scenario reflected bullshit not justice.  

The coda to this story is that we have a replacement for Nigel MacLennan, Katherine Carpenter. She has a reputation of decency from those who know and like her. However, the early signs are not encouraging. She has issued a Pollyanna statement about the future (pinning our political confidence on the ‘New Strategic Framework’). 

Any politician who wants to ‘draw a line under the past’ (another common bullshit cliché, like ‘wanting to make a difference’) and only look to the future should be held in suspicion. This is particularly the case given that the legacy of cultural failure since 1988 has undermined both public confidence and membership democracy. Given the gravity of the current crisis in the BPS, we have to go back honestly before we can go forwards confidently.  Carpenter’s very existence in the Presidential position emerged because of a clear past cultural failure and its imperviousness to legitimate challenge. Systemic resistance has tended to outwit individual Presidents, who have bothered to tinker and challenge. Why should Carpenter be any different?  

Readers may recall that the cabal decided to restrict who could stand in the Presidential election. From their control-freakery perspective this was a smart move. It pre-empted the risk of another radical reformer being elected.  The tactic worked by declaring that only candidates who had already proven their active or passive complicity could stand (i.e., members of Senate and Trustees). Senate members had self-evidently and consistently failed to challenge or address the misgovernance that MacLennan, as a lone voice, was describing.  Accordingly, anyone ‘elected’ from Senate (notably no Trustee put themselves forward) would already be a safe pair of hands for the cabal. The ‘election’ was not open to nominations from the general membership and the potential risk this might pose to the cabal: so much for democracy.

I will submit a longer version of this piece for consideration by the editor of History and Philosophy of Psychology. If it is accepted, it will probably be spiked by an anonymous apparatchik in the censorship department of the BPS. I have been there before and, as they say, ‘got the T-shirt’. 

Bhaskar, R. (1993) Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom London: Routledge.

Frankfurt, H. (1986) On Bullshit Raritan Quarterly Review. 6, 2, 81–100.

Frankfurt, H. (1988) On Bullshit: The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1988. 

Hardy, N. (2021) Catcher in the lie: resisting bovine ordure in social epistemology Journal of Critical Realism 20, 2, 125-145

Heidegger, M. (1927) Sein und Zeit (trans J. Stanbaugh 1962 as Being and Time) New York: State University of New York Press.

Hobsbawm, E. (1992) The Age of Extremes London: Michael Joseph

Laing, R.D. (1968) The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Orwell, G. (1949) Nineteen Eighty Four London: Secker and Warburg.

Sartre, J-P. (1943) L’Être et le Néant (trans. H. Barnes 1956 as Being and Nothingness)London: Routledge. 

Spicer, A. (2020) Playing the bullshit game: how empty and misleading communication takes over organizations Organization Theory 1, 1-26.

The Psychologist (2006) Double top – Ray Miller in discussion with Tim Cornford: The Society’s new President in discussion with the Chief Executive. How do their roles work together, and where do they see the Society going? April, 19, 20-21.

Williams, B. (2002) Truth and Truthfulness Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zamyatin Y. (1924) We (trans. G. Zilboorg) New York: E.P. Dutton

"The Psychologist", Governance, IAPT

The BPS and IAPT – another failure?

We publish below (in full) a post from another blog – CBT Watch (http://www.cbtwatch.com) – which reflects the very same sort of issues that we have been raising in this blog over the past few months. We are grateful to Mike Scott for this succinct critique of the BPS’s approach to a matter of significant public policy in respect of mental health service provision. We also thank him for allowing us to re-post this.

The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Programme and the British Psychological Society (BPS)

The BPS has enthusiastically supported IAPT from its inception in 2008.  Improving access to psychological therapies is clearly a laudable goal, as most people with a mental health problem are not offered psychological therapy. The Society has led the course accreditation process for IAPT’s Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners (PWPs) low-intensity training since 2009. Features on individual PWP’s have featured periodically in the pages of The Psychologist. In 2009, The Psychologist published a letter from the then President of the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (BABCP) stating that BPS members on the IAPT Education and Training Project Group supported BABCP’s accreditation of high intensity training programmes and noted that there were BPS members on the Accreditation Oversight group.

But the enthusiasm of BPS to give away psychological therapy has not been matched by a concern to listen to the concerns of service users. Specifically:

  1. At no point has BPS suggested that it is inappropriate for IAPT to mark its own homework. The latter’s reliance entirely on self-report measures completed often in the presence of the IAPT therapist, should have had any self-respecting psychologist crying ‘foul’ and calling for independent assessment. 
  2. A concern for service users, should have led BPS to insist that a primary outcome measure must be clearly intelligible to the client. But there has been no specification of what a change in X as opposed to a change of Y would mean to a client on the chosen yardsticks of the PHQ-9 and GAD-7. 
  3. BPS has been strangely mute on the fact that two self-report measures have been pressed into service to validate IAPT’s approach, with no suggestion that such an approach needs to be complemented by independent clinician assessments that go beyond the confines of the 2 disorders (depression and generalised anxiety disorder) that the chosen measures address.
  4. If a drug company alone extolled the virtues of its psychotropic drug, BPS members would quite rightly cry ‘foul’ insisting on independent blind assessment using a standardised reliable diagnostic interview. But from the BPS  there has been a deafening silence on the need for methodological rigour when evaluating psychological therapy. This reached its zenith In the latest issue of The Psychologist, September 2021, when the Chief Executive of an Artificial Intelligence Company, was allowed to extol the virtues of its collaboration with four IAPT services. No countervailing view was sought by The Psychologist, despite it being obvious that the supposed gains were all in operational matters e.g. reduced time for assessment, with no evidence that the AI has made a clinically relevant difference to client’s lives.

In 2014 I raised these concerns in an article ‘IAPT – The Emperor Has No Clothes’ I submitted to the Editor of The Psychologist which was rejected and he wrote thus ‘I also think the topic of IAPT, at this time and in this form, is one that might struggle to truly engage and inform our large and diverse audience’. This response was breathtaking given that IAPT was/is the largest employer of psychologists. 

Fast forward to 2018 and I wrote and had published in 2018 a paper ‘IAPT – The Need for Radical Reform’ https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318755264 published in the Journal of Health Psychology, presenting data that of 90 IAPT clients I assessed independently using a standardised diagnostic interview only 10% recovered in the sense that they lost their diagnostic status, this contrasts with IAPT’s claimed 50% recovery rate. The Editor of the Journal devoted a whole issue to the IAPT debate complete with rebuttals and rejoinders. But no mention of this at all in the pages of The Psychologist.

It appears that BPS operates with a confirmation bias and is unwilling to consider data that contradicts their chosen position. If psychologists cannot pick out the log in their own eye how can they pick out the splinter in others. In 2021 I wrote a rebuttal of an IAPT inspired paper that was published in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology, ‘Ensuring IAPT Does What It says On The Tin’, https://doi.org/10.1111/bjc.12264 but again no mention of this debate in The Psychologist

In my view the BPS is guilty of a total dereliction of duty to mental health service users in failing to facilitate a critique of IAPT. It has an unholy alliance with BABCP who are similarly guilty. Both organisations act in a totalitarian manner.

Dr Mike Scott (CBT Watch)

Blog Administrator note: An additional two sentences which had been omitted in the editing process have been added to point 4 (24 August 2021).

Academic freedom and censorship, Governance, Memory and the Law Group

The cabal and human rights violations

David Pilgrim posts…..

Hypocrisy abounds at the centre of the BPS. The recycled names in the oligarchy pride themselves for occupying positions of power for years on end. They reframe this deluded virtue signalling as ‘serving’ the membership, and present awards to one another in celebration. The functional advantages for their CVs and the exclusive opportunities to pursue their particular personal interests, are mentioned little. 

Our references to the gender document (see, for example, here) and our analysis of the policy on memory and the law in past pieces reveal this hypocritical gaming. Financial controls by the centre of the periphery and its subsystems, run by honest volunteers with tiny budgets, have been cumbersome and petty. At the same time, we are expected gullibly to accept the write off of thousands and thousands of pounds pocketed by corrupt employees, as a trivial accounting footnote. As the old credit card advertisement used to go appositely, ‘That will do nicely.’

The organisation is now so dysfunctional and depleted of intellectual and moral credibility that it is difficult to know where to start when telling the story to any newcomer, whether it is a curious friend or a journalist. One point of departure is human rights and the Orwellian doublethink of the cabal. They control an organisation that professes to be transparent, when it is actually recurrently secretive. From heavily redacted Board minutes to anonymised kangaroo courts and rigged appeals, the evidence is now clear. They run an organisation that professes to be learned, when actually they hold cherished academic values, such as freedom of expression, in complete contempt. They profess to be democratic but contrive to remove a properly elected President, intent upon holding them to account for current and past misgovernance. 

Virtually anything seems to go to protect those in power. The arrogance that comes with the latter allows the cabal to float above normal and reasonable expectations of organisational probity, with blithe indifference.

The continuing relevance of Article 10 of the ECHR

We have posted several pieces tracking the miscarriage of justice against Nigel MacLennan. In the coming months there will be more to report on his case in an unfolding legal context. Whistle blowers are what the Index on Censorship calls ‘the lifeblood of democracy’ (Bright, 2021). The BPS is a textbook case of pernicious anaemia in this regard.

The human rights implications of freedom of expression (including academic freedom) and whistleblowing can be considered together under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Both involve the recognition that, with public interest in mind, individuals should neither be constrained in silence, nor punished for their acts of good faith. In the case of the latter, MacLennan has been punished by the BPS in a manner that befits the worst form of imagined dictatorship. Expelled, publicly disparaged and career ruined, he has paid the price for the survival (for now) of the cabal.

Whistleblowing is a form of morally justified civil disobedience, but academic freedom is not, so their legal and ethical rationales have had different histories. In the UK, the Robbins Report of 1963 devoted a chapter to defending the rights of academics to express and explore ideas (even if others found them objectionable). Margaret Thatcher tried and failed to remove some of these recommendations, with House of Lords objections prevailing. Latterly, our Conservative government has discovered its own libertarian conscience, in the face of the challenges posed by the new and mindless authoritarianism of identity politics. The ‘cancel culture’ is now impacting training and education generally and psychology is not immune from that erosion of the gains of the Enlightenment: a cue for the next section.

My censored article: ‘Rachel’ replies

In a previous post I outlined the story of an article censored by anonymous BPS staff. I discovered that this sort of Stasi style surveillance and editing was not unusual under the regime of the cabal. The irony was that the censored piece was an ethical exploration of freedom of expression and its importance for psychologists today; it was published in full on this blog, at the end of the posting. As the cliché goes, ‘you could not make this up’.

The Complaints Department received objections from me, and I was eventually told that it was not published because of its poor quality. This was not true: the piece had been agreed by the editor and I was told at one point by a ‘Trustee’ that COVID was simply delaying its appearance. Follow up clarifications from me were ignored. Somebody in the BPS, to put it charitably, had been ‘economical with the actualité’. The poor administrative person in the Complaints Department just passes on what a ruling is without comment. We are not told who told them to say it, but it then becomes the view of ‘the BPS’. Eventually, and recently, I made one last attempt to get the cabal to come clean about the censorship. 

The other day, I received a reply from Dr Rachel Scudamore (rather disarmingly under the faux-intimate norms of the New Public Management model, signing herself ‘Rachel’). I have not met this person and have no reason to either like or dislike her. I had to go on the website to discover her role, with its suitably Orwellian title, given the disarray in the BPS today. Here is what she said:

Dear Dr Pilgrim,

I have reviewed our correspondence with you and I can see that this matter has been addressed in several emails.

 In response to your specific question, the CEO took overall responsibility for the investigation of the matter and drew on colleagues and members as required to come to his conclusions; we would not normally share further details.

 I also note that Diane Ashby informed you on 24th March 2021 that “Having fully answered your various concerns and complaints, I do not think that continuing to respond is an appropriate use of the resources of the society and so I have instructed my team not to acknowledge or respond to repeat correspondence unless substantive new points are made”.

 There are no substantive new points made, and so there is nothing further to add. 

Regards,

Rachel

Dr Rachel Scudamore

Head of Quality Assurance & Standards

So that is that. I am still in the dark about who censored my piece and the rationale for the spiking. BPS resources are too precious to establish the simple facts: who really made the decision and why? And why did I receive conflicting messages about first its delay, and then its complete non-appearance? I will never know. The reader’s guess is as good as mine, because secretive regimes leave ordinary citizens in a bemused state of deliberately contrived ignorance.

 The good use of BPS resources

The matter of resources is of course important, but its salience seems to shift dramatically from one scenario to another, according to the whims of the cabal. For example, my case study in the violation of academic freedom, within an alleged learned Society, does not warrant resources. Why be bothered with old fashioned academic freedom, when Malcolm Tucker-style information control and impression management is the new name of the game?  

In another example, according to its website, the BPS does not investigate complaints against individual members. Well, that is the case unless the member involved happens to be a threat to the ruling cabal. Leaving nothing to chance, it made sure that Nigel MacLennan was investigated following trumped-up charges by members of the Senior Management Team. 

And there was more: the latter employed expensive lawyers to seek a justification for his expulsion, with the sensitivities about whistleblowing being a potential and irritating impediment to this goal.  The Board (of course minus MacLennan) endorsed this ‘good use’ of members’ money. Then there is the small matter of the unendingly paid CEO on gardening leave, as well as the £6 million change programme (headed up by Diane Ashby). All good use of money maybe – but maybe not, the reader can make up their own mind.

To be fair, in an encouraging act of seeming insight, the cabal did pay money to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) for some consultancy to improve matters. The problem was that the NCVO walked away from what they saw as an unsafe and toxic culture in ‘the BPS’. The membership knew nothing of this at the time, but why would they? Secretive cabals are skilled, for a while, at keeping awkward news under wraps. Eventually journalism did its job and now we all know the bones of the story (see here).

Conclusion

The cabal running the BPS for now holds human rights concerning whistleblowing and academic freedom in contempt. I may be wrong in this broad judgment. However, I would genuinely welcome their comments on this piece, so that they can put the record straight about censorship and whistleblowing to the BPS membership. As with my right to speak out, they have the right to remain silent. My hunch is that silence will prevail.

Reference

Bright, M. (2021) Holding the rich and powerful to account: whistle blowers are extraordinary people, but they often pay a terrible personal price. (Editorial) Index on Censorship 50, 2, 1. 

Academic freedom and censorship, Financial issues, Governance, Memory and the Law Group

‘The Martians could land in the car park, and no one would care’

Dave Pilgrim posts…

In 1988, the Board structure agreed by the then leaders of the BPS set the scene for the norms of misgovernance and corruption – which we have reported at length on this blog – to grow and thrive.  Two years later Margaret Thatcher had gone, but neoliberalism and managerialism were finding their symbiotic balance and were being embedded in British public organisations, as they became both more bureaucratized and more marketized (Dalingwater, 2014).  The compromise was the New Public Management approach, which was to find a particularly dysfunctional expression in the BPS, as recent events have demonstrated.

In 1989, Del Amitri released their insistently hypnotic Nothing Ever Happens. Good protest songs are enduring; really good ones can be prophetic, hence the title above, which is one of its many spikey lines. To signal the frenetic passivity of recent times, its chorus repeats its own lament of futile repetition: ‘nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all, the needle returns to the start of the song, and we all sing along like before’.  Good lyricists, like good whistle-blowers, are the canaries in our coalmines.

The BPS AGM on the 26th of July 2021 was rigged to celebrate the oligarchy in a feast of scripted mutual backslapping. Another incipient President was confected, in the wake of the show trial, biased appeal, and public disparagement of the expelled whistle blower, Nigel MacLennan. This illegitimate election symbolised, once more, a contempt for integrity and decency in the BPS. 

The two new Presidents (are they both ‘Elect’ and do these terms actually matter anymore, within this chaotic pretence of democracy?) have got their work cut out. If the SMT say ‘jump’, will they ask, ‘how high?’ Alternatively, will they see what is coming down the line and do their best to hold the cabal to account? When put under pressure to conform obediently, as they will, can they really risk being tarred with the same brush of the old guard? This is the grim context for the newcomers to the party: while the Charity Commission prevaricates, the lawyers and the police are closing in on past crimes and misdemeanours. This is a tricky scenario and so the new duo might do well to seek their own legal advice at this stage. 

Within two days of her ‘election’, Katherine Carpenter was ‘delighted’ to unveil the oven-ready ‘New Strategic Framework’, the goals of which I cite here, with some questions in square brackets; many more come to mind, but these are a sample:

  1. We will promote and advocate for diversity and inclusion within the discipline and profession of Psychology and work to eradicate discriminatory practice. [Will this goal require and permit an open democratic discussion of what is meant by all of these terms and how they will be measured or appraised in practice?]
  2. We will strive to create a vibrant member-centred community with a meaningful membership identity. [Will this mean being open with members and not keeping them in the dark about the workings of the Board and the workings of the SMT, in the light of recent history?]
  3. We will promote the value of and encourage collaboration in interdisciplinary development and engagement. [How will that work in practice in relation to other biological and social sciences and will there be a shared commitment to academic freedom and an unambiguous condemnation of censorship?]
  4. We will be the home for all Psychology and psychologists and uphold the highest standards of education and practice. [Will the ethics and complaints system be overhauled radically in order to turn these fine words into practice, under full compliance with Charity Commission expectations?]
  5. We will increase our influence and impact and advance our work on policy and advocacy [Will this work be inclusive of all policy views and value positions in the Society, rather than those which have been captured contingently by some interest groups in the recent past?]
  6. We will strive to be more innovative, agile, adaptive and sustainable. [Will this include being less secretive and censorious than in the recent past or are these words a form of permission for a continuation of the lack of accountability from those in power in the BPS?]”

All of this Motherhood and Apple Pie stuff is so amorphous that it cannot be gainsaid. It all sounds sensible and progressive, but the devil is in the detail. More importantly, look what has happened in the past, when people have tried to put good intentions into practice. 

A number 7 could have been ‘we will confess to and clear up the scandalous mess the BPS is now in after so many years of misgovernance’. That did not make it into the ‘New Strategic Framework’ for the very reason that the rhetorical line of ‘problem what problem?’ has been held firmly by a defensive cabal, pursuing their own vested interests. However, how can ‘we’, the members, have a better a future without owning the truth of the past?

The broadly good intentions of this document motivated the activity of the President Elect, who note was removed illegitimately and then replaced by Katherine Carpenter. He was concerned to make the Society open, and membership centred. He was concerned to defend a Society that was both learned and learning. He was the one who ensured engagement with the Charity Commission to facilitate such changes, and this was resisted by a reactionary Board hostile to his efforts. 

Earlier attempts at ensuring accountability (for example from another removed President, Peter Kinderman) ended in the same process of systemic resistance, reflecting the norm of misgovernance present since 1988.  And although this is systemic resistance (a description), it has been enacted knowingly at times by a social network that remains shameless and self-congratulatory (a motivational explanation) (McPherson, et al., 2001). If this claim is in doubt, witness the fatuous AGM just held. 

In this context of pretence or bad faith, who does the word ‘We’ actually refer to? Is it the Board, the SMT, the membership, some combination, or other people, such as the non-existent truly independent Trustees? Today, investigative journalists trying to find ‘the BPS’ (and the ‘we’ that supposedly embodies it) are like the perplexed foreign student trying to find ‘the university’, among the Oxford colleges (Ryle, 1949). The convenient imprecision throughout the Framework creates ambiguity and a formula for perpetual unaccountability and political mystification in practice. ‘The needle returns to the start of the song and…… 

‘….we all sing along like before’ – an organisation without a memory

The BPS is the antithesis of a ‘learning organisation’. Indeed, it is an ideal case study in cultural dysfunction and selective amnesia, ripe for teams of researchers, whether historians or from management schools. The very idea of a learning organisation or ‘organisation with a memory’ has proved problematic for the NHS (Pilgrim and Sheaff, 2006) but that does have the excuse of being a vast and complex system, employing around 1.5 million staff (Department of Health, 2000). By contrast, the BPS is a medium-sized charity, with just around a hundred employees and less than 70,000, members. The first is a national treasure but the second is becoming (for those who care about it) a national embarrassment. 

Given the size of the BPS, it does have a fighting chance of being a learning organisation. However, for this to be actualised then a starting responsibility is that those of us who are committed to academic values, including freedom of expression, have to be honest about the mess before us. Evading that empirical picture or pretending that this is merely a passing downturn in the fortunes of an essentially honourable institution, which has been kicking around since 1901, looks like the current tactic of the cabal. They favour the convenient ‘this is has been a challenging year’ rhetorical waffle, in order vaguely to play victim and avoid telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the shambles. (This excuse making was on the pernicious YouTube video from Carol McGuinness about Nigel MacLennan, now belatedly removed by the cabal.)

Who will provide the history of this shameful period?

This blog will be archived in the History of Psychology Centre. However, what will be the story for the record told by the current cabal and the older oligarchy, encouraged in their emergence by the structural false start of 1988?  Will it be the heavily redacted Board minutes of November 2020? Will it describe the policy of censorship operated deliberately in relation to its own publications and how BPS employees were used for that purpose? Will it offer the memo demanding that people should close down discussion? Will there be a silence about the departure of the Finance Director while under investigation? Will it mention non-disclosure agreements and the departures of another CEO and another Finance Director under a cloud before the most recent debacle at the top? Will there be an account of why the current CEO (at the time of writing) is still being paid, while absent from his office, with the membership being offered no transparent proposals about the resolution of this ridiculous impasse? 

The questions keep coming for the very reason that the cabal is secretive, and secrecy provokes curiosity, journalistic and otherwise. And because it is secretive ipso facto it is not inclined to elaborate very much for the historical record. More food for thought for the incoming Presidential duo about how history will judge us all.

Talking of looking back…..

When we sent our dossier to the Charity Commission at the end of 2020, it contained several examples of concern that reflected poor governance in the BPS. One related to the closure of the Memory and Law group announced by the Chair of the Research Board, Daryl O’Connor. At the recent AGM noted above, he was made an Honorary Life Fellow of the BPS. Earlier in the month, the other person involved in the announcement, Lisa Morrison Coulthard (Head of Research and Impact), declared via Twitter that she was leaving the BPS after 25 years of employment to join the NFER. Both were central to the development of the existing and outdated report on memory (British Psychological Society, 2008/2010), which was challenged for a decade by alternative voices in the BPS, particularly those emphasising underreported child sexual abuse and its consequences for adult mental health. 

O’Connor and Morrison Coulthard had a clear vested interest in closing down a much-needed review of the evidence, which note had been agreed publicly and on the record on March 26th 2018, under the watch of the then President Nicola Gale. While public inquiries into child sexual abuse have now published their findings in the Australia and are being released episodically in the UK, the only advice available from the BPS is the 2008/2010 report (now archived). It has a narrow focus on false positive decision making based on closed system methodology and its challenge of extrapolation to open systems. For now, the BPS has permitted no reflection on the public inquiries, the social epidemiology of underreported child abuse, the tendency of sex offenders to glibly deny wrongdoing from private scenarios of the past or the evidence on trauma and dissociation (Pilgrim, 2018; Children’s Commissioner’s Report, 2016). 

This suppression of the production of an agreed new review on this matter of grave public interest is an absolute disgrace. It is (yet) another betrayal of democracy and transparency, to add to the many others we have documented on this blog. What chance the success of the ‘New Strategic Framework’, with these inherited mendacious cultural norms? If, in the future, the BPS is to regain a sense of honourable self-possession as a charity, a membership organisation and a truly learned Society, then people will surely be rewarded for their short-term, not long-term, contributions. Why is hanging around year on year, or being recycled in different leadership roles to exclude new voices, a badge of honour and not of shame in a membership organisation? 

The oligarchy may now be disintegrating by sheer dint of the years passing. This creates the space for a new ethos and for considered reflection on this cultural inertia and its ethically dubious norms of self-perpetuated authority.  After the police, lawyers and Charity Commission have done their work in the coming months, then the BPS still has a fighting chance to regain its credibility and become a learning organisation. 

New people with integrity will be needed for this optimistic scenario. The stitched up and scandalously disparaged ex-President Elect could be their role model. Trustees need to be truly independent to displace the current sham of a Board. The SMT must be accountable to the Board and not dictate to it. Financial matters must be transparent at all times to the Board. The membership must be kept informed, not in the dark. Censorship should have no place in a learned organisation. 

Food for thought indeed for the incoming Presidential duo. I do not envy them their considerable challenge.

References

British Psychological Society (2008/2010) Guidelines on Memory and the Law Recommendations from the Scientific Study of Human Memory.  Leicester: British Psychological Society.

Children’s Commissioner’s Report (2016) Barnahus: Improving The Response to Child Sex Abuse in England London: UK Children’s Commissioner’s Office 

Dalingwater, D. (2014) Post-New Public Management (NPM) and the Reconfiguration of Health Services in England. Observatoire de la Société Britannique, 16, 51-64.

Department of Health (2000) An Organisation With A Memory: Report of an Expert Group on Learning from Adverse Events in the NHS London: Stationery Office.

McPherson, M. Smith-Lovin, L. and Cook, J.M. (2001) Birds of a feather: homophily in social networks. Annual Review of Sociology 27, 1, 415–444. 

Pilgrim, D. (2018) Child Sexual Abuse: Moral Panic or State of Denial? London: Routledge.

Pilgrim, D. and Sheaff, R. (2006) Can learning organisations survive in the newer NHS? Implementation Science 1, 27, 1-11.

Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind London: Hutchinson.

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

THE BPS AND THE FOURTH ESTATE

David Pilgrim posts…

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

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

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

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

Impression management during times of crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Recent Case Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Governance

Fear and loathing in the BPS

David Pilgrim writes…..

On this blog we have rarely attacked individuals, mainly to avoid the inconvenience of libel claims. We would have had a ready fair comment defence, given that we have clear evidence of the actions or inactions of named actors. However, there is another reason to keep our eye on the bigger picture, beyond being cautious about moral attributions in relation to particular people. We have noted the structural problem of the Board of Trustees totally lacking independence and so being disabled from ensuring proper oversight. Even individual Trustees acting in good faith cannot be impartial at present. Also, the problems of managerialism are not limited to recent times but started gradually with the first CEO appointed in 2002. The circumstances of his rapid departure under a cloud were, to say the least, suspicious. They warrant a proper historical investigation, when the time is right.

Today, the overloaded and cautious Charity Commission, still engaged with the cabal trying to negotiate legal and regulatory compliance, could have already brought the BPS into a form of special measures as a failing organisation. This could still happen, but the regulatory weakness of the Commission is part of the story. Then there is the police investigation into both fraud and arson. These pose challenges for us and for journalists under sub judice constraints. This point also applies to the ethical and legal aspects of the show trial of Nigel MacLennan. Another contextualising consideration is the wider political zeitgeist. 

Norms of weak democracy and public passivity

Power play in civil society today reflects recent norms of amoral instrumentality: the powerful frequently do what they like with impunity. They do what they need to do to in order to defend the status quo, save their own skins and evade accountability. The ‘you do you’ mantra of a generation socialised into individualism, within a regime of neoliberalism, has led to political disengagement more widely and this infects the moral order of our current civil society. 

Many of us are now in a state of learned helplessness about shameless politicians and the management class above us, within bureaucracies, private, public or third sector. This ‘whatever it takes to survive’ normative position from the powerful, along with the ‘what is the point in trying to hold them accountable?’ response from below, is not limited to the BPS. 

For example, those working in higher education may be aware of the case of Professor Jane Hutton who was expelled as a UCU-nominated Trustee of USS. (See https://medium.com/ussbriefs/the-insider-jane-hutton-and-uss-d350ba5457ae)  As with Nigel MacLennan, there was no evidence that she was seeking personal gain from her actions but instead was acting in good faith on behalf of members. What they had in common was their persistence in asking necessary questions about governance. In both cases, a self-interested cabal spent much time, and large amounts of members’ money, in order to expel the critic, rather than dealing with the content of their concerns. Cabals enjoy the fruits of their misgovernance and those asking awkward questions may be punished and often they are. After all, shooting the messenger is a lazy option that often works. After her expulsion from the board of USS, it soon became clear that Hutton was vindicated in her analysis of the shambles in the organisation. 

I hope that Nigel MacLennan soon has the same moral victory after his public disparagement. The early signs of his vindication are good. He was the one person constantly reminding the Board of Trustees of the need for legal and regulatory compliance, being demanded quite properly by a frustrated Charity Commission. He was the one that pointed up the responsibilities of oversight held by the Trustees in general, but also specifically in relation to the unfolding story of the fraud being investigated by the police. He was the one who objected to the suppression of information about the damning NCVO report (see below). At all times he acted with integrity. For his efforts the cabal put him on a show trial and expelled him. They will now delay his appeal until the (illegitimate) election ensures his replacement. The cabal will be hoping that their insider candidate is victorious; we shall see.   

Whether MacLennan is vindicated or not, there are lessons that we can take from how other organisations treat legitimate challenges to the status quo.

Lesson One: self-serving and even corrupt leaders in charities can survive for many years. 

Lesson Two: structurally, leaders of a dysfunctional organization can adapt in various states of reform (actual or rhetorical). In the case of the BPS, the cabal will respond as slowly as it can to the demands being made by the Charity Commission about regulatory compliance. They will defer MacLennan’s appeal long enough to complete his political deletion. 

Lesson Three: individual cabal members will move on to new jobs, maybe even with profitable non-disclosure pay offs. Some members of the Senior Management Team have already bailed out in the past year (with one under investigation at the time). Ordinary members are as clueless today as they were a year ago about how and when the investigation of the CEO will be resolved. Indeed, some members are only just waking up to this simple fact, in light of the complicit silence of The Psychologist

Lesson Four: the short-term survival of careerist managers may or may not be aligned with long term the higher order values of the BPS.  I may have been a member of the BPS for forty years but the here-today-gone-tomorrow members of the Senior Management Team are calling the shots and shaping the future. From football club managers to university VCs and NHS CEOs, we now routinely recognise this pattern of opulent high turnover. This accounts for why, although the BPS website makes claims about transparency and being a learned society, in practice the cabal indulge in information suppression.

Janus-faced professionalism in the charity sector

Most political scandals are about narcissism, power, money or sex (or some permutation). Critics of charities have confirmed this pattern, and this has been at its most obvious in the ‘just giving’ wing. Scandals in Oxfam and Save The Children exemplify this point (See (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/charity-commission-reports-on-inquiry-into-oxfam-gb-no-charity-is-more-important-than-the-people-it-serves-or-the-mission-it-pursues; (https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/news/media-centre/press-releases/save-the-children-response-to-charity-commission-report). 

In the case of quasi-public bodies like the BPS, which have charitable status, there is another dimension needed for our analysis. This is whether professionals are role models for personal integrity and their knowledge is generated unambiguously for the public good. The take-for-granted assumption about the beneficent and socially integrative role of professionals in modernity was promoted by the sociologist Emile Durkheim. However, his conservative and uncritical stance was challenged by Max Weber, who favoured scepticism (Saks, 2010). He saw professionals as being Janus-faced; working for others often but also readily switching to advancing their own narrow interests (cognitive or economic), when and if this was required. This entails sustained political energy to dominate others inside a profession, alongside it (competitors) and outside it, with the public or client groups being the first target for domination.  I return below to Weber and the BPS. 

The legitimation crisis of the charity sector is reflected in its own current soul searching. Stuart Etherington of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has offered us a critical fundraising review and the use of data by charities has been scrutinised by the Information Commissioner’s Office. Similar doubt casting can also be found in the Public Accounts Committee about the misuse of funds. The level of cynicism about the self-interest of charities is evident in the work of David Craig and his website snoutsinthetrough.com (Craig 2014).

Etherington’s NCVO is of direct relevance to us. It was his organisation that refused to work with the BPS because of its unsafe culture for its own employees. An irony, which has not been lost on journalists, is that a psychological Society has been dubbed psycho-toxic by those sampling its wares. 

Persecuting the righteous

If those asking awkward but fair questions like Hutton and MacLennan are punished, then most ordinary mortals will, quite understandably, keep their heads down and their mouths shut. A few years ago, a colleague had a cartoon on his pin board over his desk, reminding me of this normal diffidence, born of fear. It was in four boxes. Box 1-mother in a restaurant asks her two kids what they want. Box 2-the first kid says, ‘I’ll have the fucking pizza’. Box 3-mother clips the kid around the ear as a punishment. Box 4: (mother to second kid) ‘And what do you want?’ Second kid replies: ‘Definitely not the fucking pizza’.

Whether our metaphor is a ‘poisoned chalice’ about incoming Presidents or a ‘fucking pizza’ for the mystified and anxious ordinary member, the point is clear. Complicit silence will tend to protect the timid and enable the powerful to sit pretty, while fortune may not favour the brave when they try to bring truth to power. Cabals operate successfully at times through their capacity for conscious and deliberate intimidation. They also create an unconscious miasma of dread because we have a primitive need to believe in the protective power of parental structures (Menzies, 1975). The persecutors of Hutton and MacLennan could rely on the silent complicity from the majority, because the history of whistleblowing is one of critics suffering detriment, both financially and emotionally. 

This is where sociological insights are relevant again. Weberian sociologists, as well as being critical of the power play antics of professionals, also respond to the question ‘do organisations have feelings?’, demonstrating that psychologists do not have a monopoly on exploring affect (Albrow, 1997). The answer to the question, as we all know, is that they do. Organisational cultures have an affective dimension and sometimes departments, or even buildings, can feel warm and cosy or chillingly sinister and all stops in between. The NCVO report indicated where the organisational culture of the BPS resides on this spectrum. 

When will we ever learn?

The learning points from the above sketch are as follows. 

  • First, we should expect those in power to act in their own self-interest. 
  • Second, they may use a mixture of secrecy and emotional pressure to ensure compliance with their goals. If needs be, whistle blowers will be persecuted and expelled. 
  • Third, those with less power will be limited in their understanding of actual events and processes, compared to the cabal in control at the centre. 
  • Fourth, the less powerful will anxiously err on the side of caution, when expressing doubts or criticisms about their organisation; they keep their heads down and their mouths shut. Alternatively, they may retain a naïve faith in their concerns being taken seriously by appealing for truth and justice from the very people who are in power over them. They may be sorely disappointed. 
  • Fifth, some in power may leave, out of fear, if the game is up about their complicit role in misgovernance. If they are employees, they will try to switch employers. If they are volunteers (such as Trustees), a mixture of guilt, fear and denial may well persist about their legacy liability. 

On this blog we have drawn these conclusions about the BPS by collating and observing evidence about a range of players and their conduct, without naming them. In their case, we can say to them, ‘if the cap fits wear it’.  

An implication of the above emotional field is that transparency and democracy will be constrained or eliminated in the organisation. When secrecy is a priority, the cabal turn that into the faux virtue of confidentiality and (amongst other tactics) set about redacting their own minutes. They want pretence to triumph over honesty, and members to be kept in the dark. This mendacity is less likely if the executive wing of the organisation fails to capture control of the Board of Trustees and if the latter is truly independent. The BPS can still survive but, as a logical precondition, the current cabal and its carpetbaggers and beneficiaries will need to depart. If they stay, the organisational agony will continue and amplify. The cabal, not we as its critics, are bringing the BPS into disrepute and wrecking its future prospects. We, like the expelled President Elect, are asking legitimate questions and so supporting, not jeopardising, the survival of the BPS.  We have explored all of these points in previous entries to the blog and will continue to do so.  Given the evidence we have, we could write a book. That is what we are now doing, and it will be published later this year.  

Albrow, M. (1997) Do Organizations Have Feelings?  London: Routledge

Craig, D. (2014) The Great Charity Scandal London: Original Book Company

Menzies, I.E.P. (1975). A case study in the functioning of social systems as a defense against anxiety. In A.D. Colman & W.H. Bexton (Eds), Group Relations Reader 1 Jupiter, FL: A.K. Rice Institute.

Saks, M (2010) Analyzing the professions: The case for the neo-Weberian approach. Comparative Sociology 9(6): 887–915.

Board of Trustees, Governance

BPS REDACTED

Ashley Conway posts….

In October 2018 the BPS stated: “In response to our members desire for more transparency, Board of Trustee minutes will be available following each meeting“.  Now that sounds very wonderful. However, there are problems in the list of meetings provided by the BPS on their website – minutes of the meeting of August 2020 are missing.  This would almost certainly have been the first one attended by the (now expelled) President-Elect, who was voted in on a platform of promoting reform of the Society.  As a responsible trustee, he made a number of requests for information about what was going on with BPS, in keeping with Charity Commission requirements.  None of this information appears in any form on the BPS website. There have been 5 meetings since this one, although the minutes of the April 2021 meeting have not appeared either (why is that?).

So, there are four meetings that we can see since August 2020.  

Let’s look at the rates of redaction in the minutes on either side of that “disappeared” meeting in August 2020:  In the 4 Trustee meetings before it, there were 4 redactions; the 4 before that, 4; the 4 before that, 3.  In the 4 after our democratically chosen President-Elect asked for more transparency, there were 12 redactions in the minutes.  Three times as many redactions after that “lost” meeting than before.  Then, after all those redactions the President-Elect received the YouTube knife in the back.  We psychologists are trained not to jump to assuming causality – so perhaps this sequence of events is simply a matter of chance.  Hmmm…I think we should be told.

And, critically, who makes the decisions about what to redact? Of course, all organisations have to keep some information confidential from time to time – I understand that, but there is usually an explicit, public statement about what material should be redacted and for how long such a restriction should last. Does such a policy exist?  If so, can we have sight of it?  If not, why not? Can we be assured that it is regularly reviewed and agreed by the Board of Trustees? Are decisions about what material is to be redacted made at the relevant meeting, with the full agreement of all those present?  What is the basis for redactions? When, and by whom, are the draft minutes reviewed? This information, fundamental to good, open and transparent governance, should be available to all members, to whom the Society is ultimately accountable. We, as members, have a right to know – the BPS has a duty and responsibility to keep us informed.

Sadly, far from achieving the 2018 target of greater transparency, what we can actually see in 2021 is an opaque, undemocratic, ruling cabal that appears to be becoming more secretive.

The recently published letter from the NCVO (https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/ncvo-pulled-consultancy-work-charity-amid-fears-detrimental-its-staff/management/article/1719976) drew attention to serious “…internal dispute between senior management and Trustees…” at the BPS.  Stories had been circulating for some time that Trustees did not think that minutes accurately reflected what was said in meetings.  So, who writes the minutes?  And who chooses what to redact?  It should be the Trustees, but word has it that this task is carried out by a Senior Management Team employee, and not a Trustee.  An employee who has no legal liability for what is done in the name of BPS, rather than a Trustee, who does carry such liability.

This is not just a bureaucratic issue of little relevance.  The management team are responsible for operational matters, and the Trustees are responsible for governance.  Yes.  Governance is the responsibility of the Trustees.   Muddling these two paves the way to chaos and to mismanagement.  This matter goes to the heart of governance of a charity turning over £13 million a year.  These issues do not put the Trustees in a good place – either they do know about the misgovernance and are therefore doing nothing about it, or they do not know about it, because they do not understand their roles and obligations.  Either way, they need to take their responsibilities very swiftly, before it is too late.  

Continue reading “BPS REDACTED”
Financial issues, Governance

How much does the future of the BPS actually matter to you?

We began this blog and the associated Twitter feed because we were all extremely concerned about what we see as the misgoverance of an organisation that we gave our time and energy to over many years because we believed in what it stood for. What we have seen in recent years is an increasing distancing of those that run the BPS from its membership – as our posts and out tweets demonstrate. The recent expulsion of the President Elect exemplifies the parlous state of the BPS. 

We have had some feedback from people who are of a similar opinion to us, some of which has appeared here, and it’s helpful to know that our concerns are shared by others. We have also had many informal comments of support either applauding our efforts or telling us of similar experiences with this failing organisation. Disturbingly, we have been told of those who, after working hard on behalf of the Society, have left feeling betrayed and traumatised by their experiences. More evidence that change is needed urgently.

But, and it is a big but, we are retired from practice and at are a distance from active involvement in the BPS. Frankly, whether it survives or not will have little practical impact on our lives professionally although its demise would cause us great sadness. But its continued existence as a thriving, member-led organisation which represents the best of UK psychological thinking and practice matters, perhaps never more so than now. Over the half-century that we have been psychologists we have seen such enormous strides made in how psychological practice has grown in maturity and relevance. Psychologist of all sorts and conditions are listened to with respect and can speak with authority. When we started out it was psychiatry that was seen as the ‘go-to’ source of expertise in matters psychological – no more. Psychologists can be proud of the strides that it have made over the years. And that process is almost entirely due to those psychologists, members of the BPS by-and-large, who were willing to spend time and energy to build the discipline, the profession and the BPS. That psychology has got to where it is today is due almost entirely to the hard work – often against the odds – of those who cared deeply and passionately about their discipline. They were not professional, go-anywhere managers – they were psychologists who believed in what psychology could do.

So this is a plea to all those of you who want to be represented by an organisation of which you can be proud. An organisation that reflects and promotes psychology to the benefit of all and of which membership can be seen as badge of honour. The BPS can be this – it is clearly not this right now. Its future cannot depend on the likes of us old codgers alone. It must involve those of you who are still out there, working as psychologists, on whose future the health of a thriving BPS is dependent. It is your responsibility more than ours. 

This is a critical time for the BPS. The current ‘leadership’ is engaged in highly unprofessional actions for which they are not being held accountable. The BPS has no senior member-elected officers. The fact that the Charity Commission is heavily involved is a serious warning sign. There is a commitment of £6 million (yes, £6 million of your money) to an ill-specified and inadequately scrutinised change project. There is a £2 million loan (securitised against two BPS-owned properties) with no CFO or CEO in post to manage or oversee these vast financial commitments. 

This needs you (yes, you) to act now. Be prepared to be rebuffed and ignored or accused of harassment if you express you concerns to the current BPS officials. Write to the Charity Commission with your comments. Read and contribute to the blog. Email the blog – BPSWatch@btinternet.com. Read and forward the Tweets  – @psychsocwatchuk. Share your experience with others.

It’s your Society – and your responsibility to rescue it.

Peter Harvey