Academic freedom and censorship, Governance

The Mess We Are In (Revisited).

David Pilgrim writes…

A few months have now past since my first post. In the most recent edition of The Psychologist, the current President speaks confidently about the need to reduce barriers to our ‘profession’ (sic).  It might seem like a semantic quibble, but the Divisions of the BPS represent forms of profession, but the Sections do not, nor do the open and inclusive Regional Groups. I continue to be a member of both the Division of Clinical Psychology and the History and Philosophy Section, which I recently chaired, and so understand the conceptual distinction in practice.  

Eligibility for the BPS is based upon completing a basic higher education in the discipline of psychology. All professional psychologists are in the discipline of psychology but not all those in the discipline of psychology are professional psychologists. Analogously having a degree in law is a necessary, but not a sufficient, basis for being a professional lawyer. 

I start with this semantic argument not to be pernickety but with a larger agenda in mind. The BPS is allegedly a learned society, overseeing a body of knowledge claiming the disciplinary title of ‘Psychology’. This distinguishes it from other nearby disciplines, such as sociology, philosophy, economics or anthropology, all of which have much to say, quite legitimately, about human experience and conduct. Its charitable status rests upon this assumption of a circumscribed disciplinary authority.

Academic freedom and editorial independence

Many members may not be aware that all the publications produced by the BPS are regulated by its central office and its generally anonymous employees, who are typically not psychologists. Apart from The Psychologist being ‘the magazine of The British Psychological Society’ (words printed every month on its inner cover) its editor is an employee of the Society.  Although the various editors of publications from the Divisions, Sections and Interest Groups are not paid for their work, they must still comply with directives from the BPS office. Copy is checked by the latter and comments and edits made, which may at times over-ride the editorial independence of each. 

Unaware of this simple fact, and maybe with a fingers-crossed blind faith in a learned society unconditionally protecting academic freedom of expression, most members may simply believe the BPS does indeed ensure academic probity. However, as I found out over a year ago (and this was my contribution of a case study sent to the Charity Commission alluded to in my original posting) deliberate decisions are made on a routine basis that over-ride editorial independence. Those are made by unnamed employees of the Society. At times, editors are also instructed to post viewpoints issued by the central office. 

These insights emerged after I had written a piece for the ethics column of the Forum of the Division of Clinical Psychology about the philosophical contestation of sex and gender. This led to interference from the BPS office and the editor being censured after it went into print. The most egregious infringement was when a follow up piece from me was accepted for publication by the editor of the Ethics Column, but it was simply spiked by the BPS office. 

This piece (this, I promise, is true and of course an irony) was about the ethics of freedom of expression, in which I explored some current implications of the legacy of J.S. Mill. At first, I was told by the BPS that it was delayed because of Covid-19. On its continued non-appearance, I made a formal complaint. Eventually, the complaints team told me that it had not been agreed for publication at all because of its poor quality. This raises an intriguing question – what qualifications does the Complaints Team have to judge the academic standard of a scientific paper? Their role is to judge the behaviour of individual members of the Society not the quality of an individual piece of work. As all of us now know, from experiencing a range of frustrated and frustrating complaints, the complaints team is a buffer and shield for decision-makers above them. They pass on messages and rulings and those actually making these decisions, with their tailored and prescribed text, are generally not identifiable. This really is not a fair way for ordinary employees of the Society to be treated by those above them in salary and status. When I asked for further clarification about the decision my email was ignored. 

A full copy of the article will be posted on the blog shortly [Administrator’s note added 07 February 2021 – now available here]. Reporting this experience is neither special pleading nor sour grapes. It is simply an illustration of the failure of the BPS to understand that if it is a learned society, as it claims to be, then it should be obliged to respect academic freedom. If it cannot then it is being hypocritical and not fulfilling the expectations of either its members or the general public. Currently it condones censorship but that is only one of several processes, which we are coming across reflecting an opaque and unaccountable bureaucracy.

Is the BPS acting in the public interest?

Turning to the implications of this for public protection, since we started this blog a few lessons have been learned about the degree of constraint being imposed on academic freedom and the skewing of discourse in favour of some vested interests and not others. Other postings on the blog have highlighted the scandal of the closure of the Law and Memory group.  This is outrageous.  

The current archived report was biased in favour of one experimentalist lobby favouring the False Memory position. Anyone who knows this field now is aware of the evidence of the impact of child sexual abuse upon current and prospective mental health. That clinical and epidemiological research should now be considered fully and in the round, alongside experimental findings, in order to challenge the degree of confidence we might have in trying to extrapolate from the closed system of the laboratory to the open system of human life. For an update see here.

A second example is the complete lack of response in relation to multi-signed letters to the CEO about moves to allow prescribing rights for psychologists and concerns about the highly biased 2019 ‘BPS Guidelines for Psychologists Working with Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity’.  No reply was received to either of these letters and radio silence still prevails today, despite prompts. Is this what a membership organisation, which is supposed to be a learned society, should really look like? Seriously?

A failure to properly advise practitioners?

A final recent example of distorted priorities in BPS publications is the notable appearance, within a day of the game-changing ruling from the Judicial Review on the Kiera Bell case on December 1st 2020, of a defiant piece in The Psychologist. It was not from a BPS member but from a representative of a trans activist organisation, not even from the UK, scorning the new unanimous ruling from the British judges. This piece was very well written and clearly editorially polished over many weeks of collaboration. The editor subsequently confirmed, when asked, that collaboration.

Was this a balanced way of reporting the new legal context, which has been created by the Judicial Review and the international legal precedent it now set? Should The Psychologist, which proclaims itself as ‘The Magazine of the British Psychological Society’, have a duty to comprehensively investigate and report the likely implications of the ruling now for clinical and counselling psychologists?  This is now law – not an opinion – which will remain current until such time as it is changed. 

This casual indifference to the new legal context was mirrored in the half-hearted way in which the BPS itself was content not to bother reviewing immediately its problematic and highly criticised policy on gender noted above. They have parked a re-visit of this document until the appeal hearing of the Judicial Review is heard in March. If the appeal fails (which is highly likely given the December 1st judgment was unanimous), it might then go to the Supreme Court. Will the BPS stall at that point as well, kicking any need for a proper review of this flawed and politicised document well into the long grass?  In the meantime, what advice will it be offering to psychologists working in this highly controversial part of mental healthcare?

Learning points to date

What we have learned in the past few months is the following.

  • Senior members of the Society (elected or unelected) evade accountability by two main methods when approached with concerns from ordinary members.  First, they may simply ignore emails. Second, they may turn pressing concerns about policy matters, implicating public protection, into a complaint to be passed around like a multi-wrapped hot potato in a game of musical chairs. What comes out of that Kafkaesque process, and at what speed, is anyone’s guess, case by case. Whether an outcome even makes sense, common or otherwise, is also important: witness my censored article and the misleading and unfounded rationale for it being spiked. 
  • The Society has no meaningful control over ethical regulation of matters psychological, whether that is in relation to members not on the HCPC register or in relation to the ethics of research. Another irony amongst many is that members may well have received an email recently promoting a course on ethics for psychologists. This is in a context in which those running the Society seem to have lost any appreciation of the meaning of the word for their own conduct and the risks that unaccountable power always entail. Witness their evasiveness and willingness to condone censorship. We will be addressing the role and functioning of the Ethics Committee in future posts.

We can only report what we know in good faith, trying, ever hopeful, to model for the BPS how to ‘do openness’. We do not know why the Finance Director left so suddenly and why this was not reported to the membership publicly, just before Christmas. We do not know why the CEO is not ‘in his office’ and when and if he might return and why ordinary members have had no update on this matter. We do not know if the sham of a Board of Trustees, with its proven conflicts of interests and its lack of outsiders to ensure true public scrutiny, will eventually collapse from its own contradictions. We also do not know what the Charity Commission will do with the information we have supplied to them in our dossier about these serious matters of poor governance. Justice can be slow and maybe slow justice is no justice. However, those contributing to this blog will continue their work, even in the face of being ignored or intimidated. We are not going away.  

Board of Trustees, Governance

BPS – Failures in meeting its charitable obligations?

David Pilgrim’s piece on this site draws attention to the dysfunctionality of the BPS and raises questions about the constitution of the Board of Trustees.

Here I want to take a closer look at that issue.

The BPS has massive problems with its infrastructure.

The British Psychological Society is a charity, and as such has to abide by certain rules laid down by the Charity Commission.  The Charity Commission website defines the Activities of the BPS  “As specified by the Charter, Statutes and Rules of the Society”.  

The Royal Charter states: “The objects of the Society should be to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology … setting up a high standard of professional education and knowledge.”. And “To maintain a Code of Ethics and Conduct for the guidance of Members and to compel the observance of strict rules of professional conduct as a condition of membership.” (my emphasis – I believe that the BPS fails dismally in this regard, and I intend to address this issue in a subsequent blog).

The BPS Code of Ethics required by the Royal Charter (3.4 Integrity) states that psychologists should act with integrity which “ … includes being honest, truthful, accurate and consistent in one’s actions, words … Psychologists value honesty, probity, accuracy, clarity and fairness … in all facets of their scientific endeavours.”.  And that there should be “Honesty, openness and candour; Accurate unbiased representation; Fairness; Avoidance of exploitation and conflicts of interest …”.  Rule 1 of the Member Conduct Rules (also required by the Charter) is that “Members must not act in a way that damages, or is likely to damage the reputation of the BPS (or is contrary to the object of the Society as set out in the Royal Charter).”.  

I think that the Society also fails badly in these requirements. How can that happen? 

To answer that question, we need to look at the rules for how charities are governed.

According to the Charity Commission website  ( “Trustees are responsible for the operation of your charity. They must show they understand their legal requirements…. your trustees’ background and experiences can help: bring different points of view to a discussion, give insight into your beneficiaries’ needs and experience, make contacts in the community, think of new ways of doing things.”.  And “As trustees, you have a duty of care to prevent risks to your charity’s reputation as well as the people it helps. As trustees, you must: always act in the best interests of the charity – you must not let your personal interests, views or prejudices affect your conduct as a trustee, act reasonably and responsibly in all matters relating to your charity – act with as much care as if you were dealing with your own affairs, taking advice if you need it, only use your charity’s income and property for the purposes set out in its governing document, make decisions in line with good practice and the rules set by your charity’s governing document, including excluding any trustee who has a conflict of interest from discussions or decision-making on the matter.”. 

This is what is said about “Risks and trustee liability”:  

“You can be liable to your charity if you act unlawfully or negligently as a trustee. Although your charity might run up debts or other liabilities as a result of decisions you make, you and the other trustees won’t be liable if you have:  acted lawfully, responsibly and reasonably, followed the rules in your charity’s governing document, taken reasonable steps to manage risks.  But if you can’t prove this, you could be ‘in breach of trust’ to your own charity. Trustees act jointly when running a charity, so the trustees as a group would be liable to repay any loss to the charity.”.

The Commission can take trustees to court to recover funds lost to their charity as a result of a breach of trust.  (

It specifies that there is a “legal duty to act in your charity’s best interests, manage your charity’s resources responsibly and act with reasonable care and skill.”.  And that it is “vital that Trustees deal with conflicts of interest, implement appropriate financial controls, manage risks and take appropriate advice when you need to.”  (

Now let’s take a look at who are the Trustees for the BPS:  

Statute 18 of The Royal Charter (Royal Charter and Statutes, BPS, 2017) states “The Board of Trustees shall comprise the Officers of the Society and other members … Presidential team, the President and The President elect… The Officers of the Society…. The Honorary Treasurer and Honorary General Secretary. The Board of Trustees shall include the following other members  … The Chairs of the Boards of the Society; At least two and not more than five other members co-opted to the Board in a manner determined by the Representative Council in accordance with the Rules.  The President shall chair all meetings of the Board of Trustees at which he or she is present and in his or her absence the President-Elect or the Vice President.”.

 So, I believe that a huge problem for the BPS is that its Trustees are individuals who are deeply embedded in its operational status quo. The people who are meant to have oversight of the actions of the Society are the same people taking those actions (or in many cases, inactions).   

Their duties are specified: “The Board of Trustees shall conduct the business of the Society consistently with provisions of the Charter and these Statutes and shall supervise the expenditure of all moneys on account of the business of the Society and do all such other things as are necessary for the transaction of the business of the Society and the furtherance of its objects… The Board of Trustees may, from time to time, at their discretion appoint from among their members or otherwise such Committees as shall appear expedient and may, from time to time, modify or dissolve any Committee. Any Committee so appointed shall in exercise of the powers delegated to it conduct its affairs in accordance with such regulations as may be imposed on it by the Board of Trustees.”.

There is also “a representative council which shall advise the Board of Trustees (“the Representative Council”). It will comprise:

(1) The Officers of the Society; the President, Honorary General Secretary, Honorary Treasurer, President-Elect and Vice President;

(2) The Chairs of the Boards of the Society;

(3) A representative from each of the Member Networks approved by the Board of Trustees;

(4) Co-opted Members who shall serve for one year as prescribed in the Rules.”.

So – to summarise – the Trustees, who are meant to impartially have oversight of the functioning of the Society, are the same people who effectively run the Society, and there is also a Representative Council which advises the Trustees, which is mainly the same people again.  So if you include being a member of the Society, many of the Trustees are in quadruple roles (e.g. Member, Chair of a Board, member of the Representative Council and Trustee).

At the time of writing there are 12 Trustees listed on the Charity Commission website, and an additional one on the BPS site.  Of the 13 on the BPS site, 12 have, or have had, senior positions in the BPS system (e.g. Chairs of Boards, Divisions, Sections etc).

How can Trustees in quadruple roles fit in with the demands of the Charity Commission to avoid conflicts of interest?  I believe that avoidance of such a conflict is imperative, and not simply that it is there, but that it is seen to be there.  At the moment it looks exactly the opposite, that the Trustee group is likely to be seen to be full of conflicts of interest.

It appears that the Statutes of the Society regarding Trustees and other roles are such that they are in direct opposition to the requirements of the Charity Commission.  How on earth do you square that circle?

There is a serious and urgent need for the BPS to review this structure, and for it to be clearly seen to be and complying with Charity Commission regulations.

Ashley Conway  1/12/20


The Mess We Are In

Posted by David Pilgrim

The dossier to the Charity Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions about the mess we are in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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