"The Psychologist", Board of Trustees, Expulsion of President-Elect, Governance

The legitimation crisis and a membership denied answers

David Pilgrim posts….

Today, the concept of a ‘legitimation crisis’ can be applied clearly to the BPS. Although explored at length in a book with that title by Habermas (1974), many other social and political scientists have returned to the theme. This is about leadership regimes, which may notionally still retain power, but their strained credibility reflects an imminent or current breakdown in their actual authority. The cabal currently at the centre of the BPS is still in power but its credibility is in rapid decline. It lacks what Eric Fromm, in his book The Sane Society, called ‘rational authority’ and, instead, exercises power on its own terms in order to ward off the stream of criticism warranted. For Fromm this would be an expression of ‘irrational authority’.

On this blog we have been reporting the character and history of this crisis in recent months and each entry, such as this one, is a new take on an unprecedented state of affairs for the Society. The occasional flurry of criticism of rogue celebrity researchers, such as Cyril Burt (Joynson, 1988) or Hans Eysenck (Marks, 2018), barely dented the reputation of the BPS. Similarly, the spat between the Maudsley methodological behaviourists and their scorned psychodynamic colleagues from north of the Thames, in a struggle to control the Medical Section and its journal, led to a temporary closure of its business in 1958 (Pilgrim and Treacher, 1991). These small eruptions of doubt, that all was well in the BPS, pale into insignificance today. We have never seen anything like this, either in living memory or in the literature on the history of British psychology. Those past examples, looked at in the current context, are like comparing a bar room brawl with a military coup. 

In meetings of the Board of Trustees today all of the Presidential triumvirate have gone, so it contains nobody elected from the general membership. Unelected Senior Management Team members now outnumber Trustees from the sub-systems. This trend is now amplified by the Board preventing members electing a replacement for the radically reforming President Elect, after expulsion from the Society, a cue for the next main point.

The public disparagement of Nigel MacLennan

The video released, vilifying the President Elect in advance of his appeal being submitted and heard, is a complete outrage. It offends our normal understanding of natural justice and leaves the Board of Trustees, who planned its production and dissemination on YouTube, open to the charge of unethical and possibly illegal activity. Are the Trustees so determined to crush this man’s reputation that they will simply ‘do anything that it takes’? 

It is officially the position of the BPS (according to its own website for all to read) not to investigate individual members. However, does that claim fail to apply only when it is politically expedient for the interests of the incumbent leadership? Are the members seriously expected to believe that this has been anything but a ‘stitch up’ from start to finish? Was the investigation panel hand-picked by the Board of Trustees or not? How many on that panel were truly independent and without their own vested interest in the current regime of power? Were membership funds used liberally by the Board to hire legal advice in order to justify the scapegoating of a reformer, turned whistle blower? The questions go on and on. Some of them ultimately may be resolved in court but what is clear already is that Nigel MacLennan has not been treated in a fair manner, if we use everyday criteria of common sense and decency.

If the stitch up hypothesis is in doubt, look at how Carol McGuinness, in a follow-up document to that unedifying and ill-advised video, made it quite clear that even if Nigel MacLennan were to be re-instated on appeal, as a member of the Society, he would still not be permitted back to his role as the President Elect. This nothing-left-to-chance approach, reflecting the persecutory intent of the Board, sticks out like a sore thumb in this planned and vindictive attack on a man whose career has now suffered immediate detriment. 

I can find no justification for this pre-emptive strike from McGuinness, on behalf the Board, within the Statutes and Rules. Does she offer no rule-based rationale in the script she is reading because one simply does not exist? This brings us back to Fromm’s notion of ‘irrational authority’. Those in power often do and say things, simply because they can. But do we have to believe this travesty of justice? And given that under Statute 20 of the Society, the Board should have been chaired on an interim basis by MacLennan not McGuinness, is there an Alice in Wonderland feel to this whole scenario? 

We know that such a surreal quality can indeed emerge from group think, especially when it leads to scapegoating in order to create an illusion of homeostasis and harmony (Baron, 2005; Leyens et al. 2000). The warring factions of the SMT and the Trustees could take temporary comfort in a common enemy to be eliminated, but the facts of the crisis are still there, with or without the removal of MacLennan. Facts do not disappear because they are ignored conveniently by displacement activity or an ostrich stance.

Keeping the membership in the dark

If a making-the-rules-up-as-you-go-along approach to governance now characterises the workings of the cabal, then another supportive tactic has been information control. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the silence in the pages of The Psychologist. An exception has been the printing of the statement about the expulsion of MacLennan from McGuinness (giving the BPS a free noticeboard posting without editorial comment or analysis), as well as the link to her video. No right of reply was offered to MacLennan. If this were a normal magazine it would reflect the normal rules of journalism and both sides of a story would have been offered, or at least taken into account.

However, this is not a normal magazine. For example, the political turbulence in the Society, should have warranted some commentary but none has been evident. Its inside cover reminds us every month that it is ‘…the magazine of the British Psychological Society…’. If this means that it obeys the contingent expectations of those running the BPS, then this is actually a fair and valid description. However, maybe members of the Society have broader expectations (such as it being a forum for free debate about the current legitimation crisis). Such expectations are indeed raised, conveniently, by the subsequent cover description ‘…It provides a forum for communication, discussion and controversy among all members of the Society…’. Has there been any actual sign of the latter, in practice, in the past turbulent year? Why are ordinary members still playing catch up about the financial scandal in the Society, the fat file of complaints being held by the Charity Commission and the expensive legal shenanigans to expel Nigel MacLennan?

During the crisis, the monthly column of the Chief Executive Officer suddenly disappeared without editorial comment, and we slowly became aware that he was ‘not in his office’ and his function was then taken on by his Deputy, Diane Ashby. And before the President, Hazel McLoughlin, also disappeared from the pages because she had resigned, citing family reasons, the content of her column revealed nothing to the membership of the chaos and tensions, which led to the resignation of the Vice President David Murphy. He explained on Twitter that this was because of his concerns about both governance and finance.  

However, the role of this ‘magazine’ has not gone unquestioned. For example, here is a reply to Pat Harvey from the editor (12.12.20) responding to her criticism of The Psychologist failing to provide information of legitimate concern to the BPS membership:

We are not a ‘house journal’, we are a magazine. Our responsibility is not to speak for the Society or to align with any documents it might publish; it is to provide a forum for communication, discussion and controversy among members and beyond.

This restatement of the confusing and contradictory blurb, cited earlier from the inside cover of The Psychologist, does not cease to be confusing and contradictory simply because it is robotically restated. Does the membership deserve a better journalistic service, during the current legitimation crisis of the BPS, than this sort of vacuous rhetorical gambit? The supine post-it-board role offered by The Psychologist on behalf of the current BPS leadership, reminds us of one of many of Orwell’s dire warnings about democracy: ‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.’

The exchange between Pat Harvey and the editor of The Psychologist, Jon Sutton, did not end with the above restated confusion. She also wrote to the Chair of the Editorial Advisory Committee, Richard Stephens, starting with a complaint about the narrow and prejudicial role of The Psychologist, when being biddable and posting the offensive video. She made other criticisms of the magazine as well. This was the response she received from Stephens:

Thanks for your letter and for raising these concerns. I plan to table these for discussion at the next meeting of the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee on 24th June. I felt that your first raised point warranted some urgency of response so I discussed it today with our editor, Jon Sutton. Jon’s view was that while the video featuring Professor Carol McGuinness as Interim Chair of the Board of Trustee has been widely disseminated among BPS members, it is unlisted on YouTube. Given that The Psychologist has a much wider audience, Jon reflected that it’s inclusion in the piece “‘The Society is at a crossroads’” was not appropriate. On that basis the video has been removed. I will feedback in due course following our meeting on the 24th

This is a small sign of good sense and fairness from Richard Stephens, although at the time of writing the video is still available on YouTube.  Will this be the start of a period of genuine honest reflection from the Advisory Committee? Would the video have been removed had it not been for these critical questions from Pat Harvey? In my view, it seems as though those below the cabal level in the Society are very slowly waking up to the serious challenges that the legitimation crisis is posing for freedom of expression and balanced and open journalism in the future pages of The Psychologist. Elsewhere on the blog I have addressed the matter of censorship in the Society.

The ethical and legal culpability of the Trustees

The Charity Commission continues to work with the Society to bring it into ‘regulatory compliance’. This raises questions about the role of the Trustees in the recent past. How many of them (other than Nigel MacLennan), out of public interest, took their concerns about poor governance and financial irregularities to the Charity Commission or the press? 

Many resignations have been evident in recent months, including the President and Vice President. Are they now prepared to offer a full and frank account to the membership of what happened in the Board, which went so badly wrong? This could be a starting point for the ‘root and branch’ reform now required, to reverse the demise of the organisation. 

Will they admit that the conflicts of interest inherent to the current definition of a Board (which date back to a lack of specificity in the Royal Charter arrangements in 1988) have been routinely out of sync with current expectations of properly independent trustees in charities today? The current Board of Trustees is a sham because its members all have conflicts of interest and there are no outsiders from the Society to offer impartial oversight. Given the legitimation crisis, should the current Trustees at least own up to this basic fact, resign and insist on a properly constituted Board in line with Charity Commission expectations?  

And if it turns out that the negligence, or worse, of some Trustees has cost the BPS dearly, will they be held liable for these costs, as Charity Commission regulations allow? Will BPS members now seek to hold Trustees liable for the seeming losses incurred to the Society, by their apparent lack of oversight? Will that liability also extend to those who resigned but were in place during that period of apparent lack of oversight (in legal terms this is called ‘legacy liability’)?

This particular legitimation crisis, like all others, never stops posing questions for democracy. We all (not just a few pushy malcontents) need to keep asking them. The passivity in our current zeitgeist about trying to influence events around us does not have to lead to fatalism. We can still challenge the cabal and the current shambles in the BPS, as this blog and Nigel MacLennan have already demonstrated. The more of us taking up this challenge, the less likely that victimisation will be seen and the more likely that the Society will be saved from its own self-inflicted wounds. 

Baron, R. (2005). So right it’s wrong: Groupthink and the ubiquitous nature of polarized group decision making. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. 37: 35.

Habermas, J. (1974) Legitimation Crisis Boston: Beacon Press. 

Joynson, R. B. (1989). The Burt Affair. New York: Routledge

Leyens, J. Ph., Paladino, M. P., Rodriguez, R. T., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S., Rodriguez, A. P., & Gaunt, R. (2000) The emotional side of prejudice: The attribution of secondary emotions to ingroups and outgroups. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 4, 2, 186–97.

Marks,D.F  (2019) The Hans Eysenck affair: time to correct the scientific record Journal of Health Psychology 24, 4, 409–42.

Pilgrim, D. and Treacher, A. (1991) Clinical Psychology Observed London: Routledge.

"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.