"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.

**************

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/ 
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.

'False Memory Syndrome', Memory and the Law Group

On memories of abuse….

The BBC website, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail are all reporting on the trial of an alleged sexual abuser, the widow of a former High Court judge. All quote the following statement by the prosecuting QC

“He tried to bury away the memories and not to think about them”.

As is her right, we have no doubt every effort will be put into her defence, perhaps even involving the British False Memory Society.

How will any witnesses for the prosecution or the barristers involved be able to rely on a balanced, empirically based set of guidelines to argue against any claims that the accuser’s memories may be ‘recovered or false’? The short answer is that they won’t because ‘The BPS’, in its wisdom, has given up on any pretence to take this matter with the seriousness that it deserves by abandoning the revision of its Memory and The Law guidelines (see here).

We can only hope that the court is able to hear from a balanced and fully informed range of expert witnesses. It is shameful than none of the psychologists who may be in that position will be able to call on the backing and support of their professional society.

The BPSWatch Editorial Collective

Governance, Memory and the Law Group

Memory and the Law – a dereliction of duty – Part 3

Peter Harvey writes….

In response to my last email to the BPS (see here), I received the following reply:

Dear Peter,

We worked closely with the Memory Based Evidence Task and Finish Group to resolve the challenges they faced. However the standards of evidence for the report and the need for a convergence of evidence from experimental work and clinical practice, as defined within the Terms of Reference for the group, could not be met. 

One of the areas where there was a lack of consensus was the nature of the output.  Their proposal to produce a series of briefings on the same topic from differing perspectives would not be an appropriate way of providing guidance for legal professions.  This approach lends itself to a series of papers in a special issue of a journal. This is the approach that has been agreed by members of the group as a way forward. As mentioned previously, this allows for a definitive review of the different aspects of evidence-based memory and allows space to outline where there are controversies as well as clear consensus.

The appointment of Professor Martin Conway as Chair of the 2008 Guidelines was in line with society policies at that time. Professor Conway was not a member of the Memory Based Evidence Task and Finish Group.

Any concerns relating to the integrity or ethical conduct of members needs to be specified with evidence so that they can be reviewed under the BPS Member Code of Conduct.

In terms of the lifespan of guidance documents, there is already a formal, structured and timed review process in place. All guidance is reviewed at two years and five years post-publication. To make the distinction clear to members and visitors to the website about what is current and what is historical guidance, we will consider adding an archiving section with a statement on legacy documents on the redeveloped website. This will help make clear that they do not reflect the BPS’s current position. The 2008 Memory and the Law publication is no longer available on the BPS website.

Your point about spending time and energy reinventing the wheel is well made. There is a 2019 research briefing on improving witness testimony produced by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. This document involved the College of Policing, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice along with a host of other experts, including members of the Memory Based Evidence Task and Finish Group. Producing a very similar document would be a duplication of effort when a resource with significant input from psychologists is already available.

Debra Malpass, Director of Knowledge and Insight

I have written the following in reply:

Dear Dr Malpass,

Following on from your email of 26 February 2021, I have prepared a more detailed response as set out below.

1. We worked closely….

Who are ‘we’? This is important for two reasons. Firstly, in this specific instance the decision is a de facto change of BPS policy – from having a set of identified, validated and authoritative guidelines for both the profession and the wider public to having nothing. Surely this decision should have been made by the Trustees after consultation with the wider set of subsystems? You will recall that I raised the issue of who else was consulted in my previous correspondence – I have yet to have an answer. Secondly, a more general issue applies to a number of occasions when there have been statements published in The Psychologist in response to queries headed, for example,  ‘Society reply..…’ – an anonymous, unattributable statement that could have come from anyone, anywhere within the organisation. If we are to have an open, transparent system then there has to be accountability and responsibility or, at the very least, attribution.

2. …the Terms of Reference…could not be met…

What does ‘…consensus…’  mean? If you take it to mean total agreement on all major points then this is unlikely in a contested area. In much of psychology there will be differences of opinion and interpretation. Professional guidance should mean that such differences and controversies are set down fairly and openly.  Much of professional life is about managing conflict and difference and you are telling me, in all seriousness, that this group of highly competent people were not able to reach a position where differences and controversies could not be stated clearly. This really beggars belief. And did no-one suggest that it was possible that the constraints of the Terms of Reference (ToR) might be wrong in some way or other – too restrictive, too demanding of a ‘consensus’ for example? Why did this impasse not result in a constructive review and re-evaluation of the ToR and an engagement with the group as to a constructive way forward?

3.  …a series of papers…

You state

Their proposal to produce a series of briefings on the same topic from differing perspectives would not be an appropriate way of providing guidance for legal professions.

You then note that the agreed way forward was series of papers in a special issue of a journal (the shortcomings of which I have referred to previously). You then go on to say

..this allows for a definitive review of the different aspects of evidence-based memory and allows space to outline where there are controversies as well as clear consensus..

I may be missing something glaringly obvious here but what is actual difference between these two statements? As I noted previously, the status of an ad hoc collection papers in a learned journal has none of the authority of a proper set of guidelines from a professional body – especially if those guidelines are clear about where there is agreement and where there are disputes.

4. …concerns relating to the integrity or ethical conduct of members…

I do not see the relevance of this. I made it absolutely clear in my email that I was not impugning the integrity of Professor Conway  – a position I still hold to. My point, and I reiterate it, was to criticise the BPS for appointing, as Chair of the original group, an individual who was clearly aligned to a pressure group and who, as a consequence of that, could be accused of having a conflict of interest. The issue is the lack of insight and governance on the part of the BPS, not a comment on the ethics or behaviour of Professor Conway.

5. …the lifespan of guidance documents…

I do not have a problem with policy documents having a lifespan – my concern is that this information not easily available.  Do all BPS Documents have a clear statement as to when they will be reviewed? Do all BPS documents have clear statements that they have a limited shelf-life? Does the BPS inform the membership regularly when guidance has expired? At present you seem to expect that psychologists have the ability to remember the dates of issuance of a set of guidelines and five years later think “ Aha – these guidelines are now archived.”. Surely it is possible for the membership to be informed when guidance is no longer applicable – perhaps a brief paragraph in The Psychologist? This is not difficult and is arguably a duty of the BPS to ensure that its membership is keep fully up-to-date on key matters of policy.

6. …Memory and the Law publication is no longer available…

It’s all very well for the BPS to do this but, as I have stated before, this document is still available and is seen to be current. In addition to the examples I noted in previous correspondence you will see that it (and note that is the 2008 version, not the revised 2010 one) is listed by Professor Conway as a recent publication on the City University Centre for Law and Memory website – this suggests that he, too, may be unaware of the archiving policy. And, as you will see below, is still regard as suitable for referencing in the guidance that you recommend (see 7, below).

7. …POST briefing …improving witness testimony…

Are you now suggesting that this is a substitute for BPS guidelines? Is this now BPS Policy? This is a complex document, evidenced from a wide variety of sources both within psychology and the law and, as such, looks to be a useful summary (perhaps I should add that I would claim no specific expertise in this area and I will leave it to others to cast a more critical eye over it). But it raises many issues. Are you going to suggest to the BPS membership that this should be used by members in place of the now non-existent BPS Guidelines? If so, what due diligence has the BPS done on the document? You will note that amongst those interviewed was Professor Martin Conway – was he representing himself, the BPS or the British False Memory Society?  The same could be applied to any of those interviewed or involved in the review process. And, I note this with a certain irony, the 2008 BPS Guidelines are used in this document (Reference 11).

8. Concluding comments 

I would draw your attention to these recent letters to The Psychologist website – one from a member of the disbanded group (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/comment/361#comment-361) and one from a practitioner (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/comment/362#comment-362). The first undermines the narrative that all members of the group were happy with the decision to disband. We are being fed an ‘official’ version of events that is at variance with the experience of those who have been actively involved and committed. This is not good enough. The second emphasises the very real gap that now exists in the absence of proper guidelines and the risk to justice that this might entail. Again, this is not good enough.

I restate my position that the BPS is guilty of a shameful dereliction of its duty to its members and to the wider public. Implying that another organisation’s document would serve the same function as one under the Society’s banner smacks more of convenience and cowardice than a commitment to science and practice. The power and authority of guidelines comes from the fact that psychologists as a group have the most integrated, model-based, evidenced-based data on human memory of any. We have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that, whilst these data are incomplete, needing ongoing research and are open to debate (as with any controversial issue) they should be made available to benefit of all.  By not resolving this issue and shutting it down, the BPS is guilty of undermining any authority it may have had and of neglecting to face, with honesty and integrity, its duty to its members and the wider public.

Yours sincerely,
Peter Harvey (Member number 5187)

'False Memory Syndrome', Memory and the Law Group

The British False Memory Society – a personal story

A quarter of a century ago information about myself and my supposed false memory was given to the British False Memory Society (BFMS) without my consent. This information has been used to construct all sorts of theories about myself and my memory. It is very bizarre as it was all third-party information. There was nothing objectively true or false about it, no court cases, and no police involvement. It was simply disputed within family conversations. I do not understand how it is ethical for psychologists to affirm that my disputed memories are false without having further evidence.

This is the reality of the experience of someone whose life has been directly affected by the controversy surrounding the accuracy of memory – away from the laboratory, away from academic debate – this is what happens to real people in real life. The quote comes from a post sent to us following our coverage of the Memory and Law debacle. The full post is here and contains important and well-researched information about the British False Memory Society, members of its Scientific Advisory Board and the tactics used by the BFMS.

One of the areas that is of particular concern to us is the reference to the Centre for Memory and Law at City University. In the absence of formal, up-to-date, evidenced-based balanced guidance for practitioners and the courts, where will lawyers go? The Centre’s title says it all, and yet it is headed by someone whose links with the BFMS are well-known. Karl Sabbagh, who was convicted of grooming of a teenage girl in 2019, remained an adviser to the BFMS until 2021 who only acted when contacted by a journalist [see here] – how can we trust them?

We continue to urge the BPS to rescind their decision to abandon the work of the Law and Memory Group; to ensure that any future group is properly representative of all the views and controversies; and that any new group is set up to included the voices of those who have experienced the machinations of organisations such as the BFMS at first hand.

Posted by BPSWatch Admin

Important Addition information (16 April 2021)

In the original version of this post a reference was made to the BFMS Archive being held at City University. We have been informed by City University that it “.. does not hold personal data for which the British False Memory Society is a data controller.  Any enquiries about this should be directed to the BFMS. Any files for which BFMS is a data controller were securely transferred to the BFMS from City in December 2017.”.

"The Psychologist", Memory and the Law Group

The Psychologist – a cautionary tale

Peter Harvey writes….

Whilst we hope that this blog will get very wide coverage, we are realistic enough to know that it hasn’t (as yet, at least) the coverage of the BPS house publication (apparently it’s not a journal, it’s a magazine).  In order to alert the wider membership both to both the fact of the BPS’s decision not to rewrite and/or publish new Memory and Law guidelines and the process as to how this decision was made, I submitted my previous post as a letter to the editor of The Psychologist. He decided not to publish it on the following grounds

  1. It was too lengthy;
  2. I had already had a fairly full response to my queries;
  3. The members of the task force are happy with agreed way forward;
  4. The topic has been covered quite a lot over the years;
  5. When the planned journal coverage appears there might be another opportunity to cover this.

My response is below

Dear Jon,

Unsurprisingly, I am extremely disappointed by your decision not to publish my letter particularly on the grounds of length and the fact that I have already had a response.

Am I to understand that the only criticisms of the BPS that you will allow have to be squeezed into an arbitrary 600-word limit? Whilst the social-media savvy might think that you can have a reasoned and sensible debate with a packaged pullquote or 280 characters, I am of the generation that believes that serious issues demand proper space for debate. Such restrictions shut down argument, make point-scoring the aim rather than having to justify a position by evidence and reason.

The whole point of my letter was that the so-called ‘..fairly full response…” raised important issues of which neither I nor the membership were aware. My initial set of questions were simply that – to ascertain what the Society’s position on the matter is so that I was not reliant on hearsay and rumour. Once I had that information then I could comment sensibly and at proper length.

I find Debra’s statement regarding enquiries to the BPS astonishing – the point I make in the letter. It is outrageous that the Society is not being proactive here. These are guidelines that are in wide circulation still (the 2008 version is still the first hit on a Google search) and many professionals will regard them as current as there is nothing to say otherwise. Do you really expect that prior to using a set of BPS Guidelines everyone will phone the office to check on their currency?

You make the statement that you have covered the issue quite a lot over the years – of course you have and rightly, because it is a critically important issue and remains so. Are you seriously suggesting that in your editorial decision-making you are using the longevity of an issue or debate as a reason for not publishing? Does it not occur to you that one of the reasons that issues such as these command coverage on a regular basis is their importance? I find this an entirely uncompelling argument for refusing to publish.

Awaiting the decision on the proposed journal coverage simply adds further delay and uncertainty into the process. It parallels the BPS’s serious error of judgement in regards to the Keira Bell/Tavistock Judicial Review when the Society – rather than telling its members to obey the law as it now stands – has prevaricated on the basis that the decision is being appealed. Waiting on the unknown outcomes of the decisions of others is surely not a tenable position for a learned society.

The fact that this has appeared on the blog is not the issue – The Psychologist is the BPS house publication to which all members have access. The information contained in my letter has relevance to a significant proportion of that membership.  It gives them information they have a right to know and, in an open organisation, the opportunity to contest and debate.

I am unconvinced that The Psychologist actually functions, as you suggest, as the place to question the Society and its actions. One reason for starting the blog was that we have heard too many members’  experiences of the BPS and The Psychologist being unresponsive to their concerns and to healthy conflict and controversy.  And we will continue to act as forum for questioning the society until it is seen to be acting in the open and transparent manner that it claims to do.

I really don’t want to play the Aggrieved Author here but I find it dispiriting that the main forum for members to have an open debate – our house magazine/journal/publication – is so difficult to have access to. Article too long – really? Just over 2000 words in a 70 page publication. Too familiar – really?  Since when did the study of memory stop being of interest? When was it reported that the Guidelines were archived? What did a recent submission on issues around freedom of expression have to do to “make the cut” to appear? This is our publication for the membership – please give us a chance to use it fully.

Memory and the Law Group

Memory and the Law – a dereliction of duty – Part 2.

Peter Harvey posts…

After a nudge –  I had no acknowledgement of my email from any of the recipients – a response was received from the BPS Director of Knowledge and Insight [sic]. This confirmed the fact that the Group has been disbanded and that the reason for this was that “…the standards of evidence for the report and the need for consensus and a convergence of evidence from experimental work and clinical practice, as defined within the Terms of Reference for the group, could not be met.”.  In response to my query about informing the wider membership I was told “…To date, we have only received two enquires about this issue, including your enquiry, so we have not disseminated a wider statement to members.”. As to any future plans for providing advice to the many professionals (both within psychology and the law) who will need coherent and learned guidance from the one organisation that is in a position to provide it, they will have to access “… a special issue of a relevant journal…” because, rather than reconstitute the group (or even start over or work towards resolving the conflicts) group members are being asked to “…work on a series of articles about memory-based evidence for a special issue of a relevant journal. This would allow for a full and definitive review of the “state of the art” of different aspects of evidence-based memory and allow the space to outline where there were controversies as well as clear consensus.”.  This decision was reached after “… a  constructive and helpful meeting…in January 2021 although the decision to end the work of the group ‘… was made by the Research Board in October 2020.”.

I leave the reader to draw their own conclusions from this, but I for one, believe this to be an extremely serious error of judgement in the BPS’s part and shows an egregious lack of both moral and ethical responsibility.  What follows is my response, sent to the President, Chairs of both the Research and Practice Boards, and the Director of Knowledge and Insight.

Your response leaves me deeply unsatisfied and raises many questions. I preface these observations by emphasising that as a retired clinical health psychologist I have no current involvement in practice or in court work and I have no special interest or involvement in any pressure group. I am interested solely in the integrity and the reputation of the BPS.

  1. The BPS is in a unique position.

There is no other professional or academic organisation in the UK that is better placed to provide an informed evidence-based overview of research in human memory and how it relates to behaviour, both in a laboratory setting and in real-world contexts. No other academic or applied discipline has the historical and current underpinning of research nor does any other professional organisation have such ready access to the wide range of practitioners for whom an informed understanding of human memory is a core element of their practice. Most importantly, psychologists have developed over-arching and integrative models of memory and its various components that allow for the multiplicity of data to be placed within an explanatory framework. This is not to say that others have nothing to say and that their individual knowledge bases, perspectives and experiences are invalid or in way lesser. But psychologists are in the unique position of being able to integrate and synthesise this vast and disparate scholarship and expertise. That is both our gift and our responsibility.

2.  The BPS has a public responsibility.

Under our Charter and Statues we have a set of public responsibilities 

“…to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied…” (Royal Charter, extract from para 3).

It could be argued that the interface between the law and the discipline and profession of psychology is amongst the most important. In the arena of the courtroom, life-and-death decisions are made on the basis of attempts to understand the complexities of human behaviour.  We have a responsibility (statutory, moral and ethical)  to ensure that all those involved in the real-life process of making informed decisions have access to the best possible evidence and data – however incomplete that may be. We cannot renege on that responsibility nor should we.  By refusing to update our guidelines we are abrogating our critical role in providing support and guidance to those who both need it and to which they are entitled.

3.  “Let them read the Journal.”

It is, frankly, astonishing that the fallback position is that the group will “…work on a series of articles about memory-based evidence for a special issue of a relevant journal. This would allow for a full and definitive review of the “state of the art” of different aspects of evidence-based memory and allow the space to outline where there were controversies as well as clear consensus.”. Apart from the inevitable delay that this process will involve it is simply the wrong decision. These data are, one assumes, already out there in the various academic journals – the “new” papers will be summaries of the existing literature brought together under one roof, as it were. Why spent time and energy on re-inventing the wheel? If this were to seen as an acceptable strategy, then why not simply ask the group for an up-to-date list of papers with references and send this out to interested parties?  And what is missing from this piecemeal approach is the integration of these data into explanatory models. The aims and purposes (amongst others) of a document including the word ‘Guidelines’  under the imprimatur of an organisation are to provide (i)a set of standards for currently acceptable practice; (ii) a summary of current knowledge in the field, identifying what is known, what is uncertain (and possibly, what is wrong) together with informed guidance as to the reliability and limitations of these data. It is this latter function that may be of more importance in this case. In the highly contentious area that involves memories of childhood trauma, courts need the best possible information in order to ensure justice is done fairly and equitably for all those involved. By making access to such information significantly more difficult and without the benefit an expert, informed overview, the BPS is actively depriving people of justice. The other, highly significant problem with the BPS’s so-called solution, is that it removes the authority that the organisation gives to a document. If we take your ‘solution’ then what is there to stop stop a variety of ‘expert’ witnesses quoting from a whole range of journals – the status of which is likely to be opaque to the courts (does publication in the BJP trump the JEP?), leaving laypersons in the unenviable position of having to rate the merits of different scientific papers. What seems to have eluded those who made this decisions is that this is not some cosy academic debate in the conference hall – it impacts on people’s lives in a highly significant way.

4.  On the lack of consensus.

Why is consensus critical? I am not sure that any area of science in general and psychology in particular is reducible to a simplistic, definitive, absolutist position that would claim to have everyone’s agreement. No scientific debate is ever closed.  No reputable scientist would say that a debate is shut, that there is no debate to be had anymore. There will always room for doubt and all our knowledge is only ever provisional, awaiting the next new piece of data or new theoretical insight. Elaborating doubt and controversy is surely a sine qua non of a truly scientific approach to knowledge. In the specific setting of memory and the law I would argue that it is absolutely essential that doubts and controversies are given due prominence so that partial and partisan positions can be exposed for what they are. Giving the courts access to the doubts and uncertainties is surely helpful so that each individual case may be judged on their merits. To quote from the 2008 Guidelines

The guidelines and key points should then be taken as they are intended – as guidelines and not absolute statements. Because they are based on widely agreed and acknowledged scientific findings they provide a far more rigorously informed understanding of human memory than that available from commonly held beliefs. In this respect they give courts a much firmer basis for accurate decision-making.

Citing lack of consensus as reason for winding up a group is cowardly and deceitful and does the BPS irreparable harm. It is shameful.

5.  Conflicts of interest?

I note that the Chair of the 2008 Guidelines was Professor Martin Conway. I also note that he is currently a member of the Advisory Board of the British False Memory Society (BFMS) and I understand that he is regularly called as an Expert Witness. Without in any way impugning Professor Conway’s personal or professional integrity, why did the BPS appoint as Chair, someone who could be put in a position where there might be seen to be a conflict of interest? The BFMS is clearly a pressure group espousing a particular view of how memory works – it cannot be said to neutral. Neither is it a professional body in the sense that the BPS is. Whilst including the views of groups like the BFMS in the Group’s deliberations is appropriate (indeed, excluding such views would also be a serious misjudgement), having someone so closely linked to a particular pressure group as the Chair surely opens the BPS to serious criticism.

6.  The lifespan of guidelines.

I was surprised to find out – despite a long and involved association with the BPS – that there is a policy of archiving guidelines and other documents after a set period of time. Whilst this is clearly a sensible policy for guidance which needs to be updated regularly to reflect changes in knowledge and/or practice, there is an associated responsibility to ensure that all users of such guidance are aware of such a limitation. Nowhere on the original document is there a statement identifying the period for which the guidelines are valid, the process by which they will be reviewed and the implications of using them after their ‘use-by’ date. I would guess that most people will still be regarding these documents as current policy. When I was working I had some considerable experience of NHS guideline development both at a national and local level and it was always made clear that there was a formal, structured and timed review process together with an identified person/post-holder being responsible for that process. Relying on a redeveloped website does not solve this problem. This is passive response which puts the responsibility back onto the user. And it is likely to exclude non-members simply because I would not expect every lawyer to regularly checking up on what is current and what is not. 

7.   Communication with the membership and others.

I find worrying at best and disingenuous at worst to think that the BPS is relying on queries to the office as a means of communicating key policy issues. I have already suggested that most members and users are unaware of the archiving policy in general and the non-applicability of these guidelines in particular. Why would they contact you? This is abrogating a key responsibility of the BPS to keep its members up-to-date and to ensure that those interfaces with the public that rely on our advice are updated as and when necessary. It  is the BPS’s responsibility to be proactive here, both in this case and in general. I am, frankly, astonished by the lack of effort that the BPS has put into keeping the membership up to speed on this matter. Did you inform the membership that the guidelines – containing advice that many practitioners will have need of – were archived and no longer current? If you have, well and good; if not then the BPS has failed in its duty to its members.

8.  Consulting about the decision.

You note that the Research Board decided to disband the Task and Finish Group in October 2020. Clearly, it is within the remit of the Board to make decisions about its own groups. However, the impact of this decision spreads far and wide throughout the Society. Off the top of my head, the Divisions of Clinical, Counselling, Forensic and Neuropsychology have an obvious and immediate interest; I would guess that the Cognitive, Crisis Disaster and Trauma, Developmental, Male, Sexualities, Women and Equalities and Psychotherapy Sections would have more than a passing interest; the Expert Witness Group most certainly would have an opinion. Were they consulted, informed, included at any stage in a decision which has importance for practice? Were the sections that would be able to inform the debate asked for a view? It looks as if the Research Board paid no attention at all to the wider consequences of their decision which has been compounded by the Society’s complete lack of transparency and action in informing the wider membership.

I look forward to hearing what steps the Board of Trustees and the SMG will take to address these issues.

Memory and the Law Group

Memory and the Law – a dereliction of duty – Part 1.

Posted by Peter Harvey

We are going to run a short series of posts concerning the BPS’s recent decision to dissolve the Memory and Law Task and Finish Group. There is a long, complex and controversial history to both the group and issue some of which we will highlight in future posts. The brief background relates to the BPS Memory and the Law reports (2008 and 2010). These are now archived as, according to the BPS “…they are no longer regarded as reflecting the Society’s current position…”. The group set up to review and revise them (presumably in the light of more recent evidence) has now been disbanded because “…it had not delivered the required output within the required timescale and failed to reach a consensus on key proposed elements of the document…”. On hearing the news that the group has now been permanently disbanded, I sent the following email (17 January 2021) to the President, and the Chairs of the Research and Practice Boards:

Dear President,

I understand that that, after its recent suspension, the Memory and the Law Task and Finish Group is to be permanently and formally disbanded. Before I take this matter further I would be grateful for clarification.

1. On whose authority was this decision made? 

2. When will the membership be informed of this decision?

3. What will the membership be told about the reasons for this decision?

4. What does the BPS intend to do about rescinding its previous documents (still in circulation) and advising both practitioners and the wider legal system that the BPS no longer feels able to offer evidence-based guidance on the controversies concerning how scientific research on memory should and should not be used in court?

As you will see I have copied this email to those within the BPS who I believe have an interest in this matter.

I should add that I do not wish you to treat this as a complaint to be channelled though the complaints process. This is matter of policy. I am requesting that you and your senior professional office-holders address this as a matter of urgency.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Harvey AFBsS; member number 5187; former Chair Division of Clinical Psychology; former Chief Examiner and Chair of Board of Examiners BPS Qualification in Clinical Psychology).