"The Psychologist", Academic freedom and censorship, Identity Politics

Class as a “Protected Characteristic”?

The current issue (a ‘…bumper edition…’ according to the managing editor) of The Psychologist[1] is promoting the idea of making social class a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act.  This campaign (surely running close to the wind as regards charity law?) is being promoted on the BPS Twitter account as well. Whether you think that this is a good idea or not, it looks to our eyes that it is feeding directly into the hotbed that is identity politics. As a consequence, the slant and positioning of the BPS cannot be said to reflect any sort of balance scientifically (or politically, for that matter). It also ignores or is ignorant about the considerable social scientific literature, which has informed debate on this contested and contentious issue over many years (I had the good fortune to have a two-year sociology subsidiary as part of my first degree).

Our own experience, as well as that of others, is that the BPS chooses to avoid debating different positions to its own ‘party line’ and either ignores or censors[2] contributions that challenge and offer reasoned critiques. For that reason we feel that the following piece from David Pilgrim deserves to see the light of day. We welcome your comments, especially from those within the BPS who are promulgating this campaign.

Peter Harvey,

Blog Administrator. 

[1]  https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/people-us

[2]  https://bpswatch.com/2021/02/07/david-pilgrims-disappearing-article/

Open commentary on the special issue on ‘Tackling Class-Based Inequalities’ (The PsychologistJuly/August 2022)

David Pilgrim


The discipline of psychology is in trouble and so is the British Psychological Society (BPS). Ignoring that current reality in the face of the policy initiative being promoted in the special issue, would be an act of complicity. My response is offered as an invitation to debate the dire state we are in as a discipline, within a neoliberal context in which the authoritarian norms of identity politics are now suffocating freedom of expression.

The topic of inequality has been of professional interest to me for over forty years, during which time I have also been an ambivalent member of the BPS. I have a Masters in sociology, as well as a PhD in social psychology and have many years of experience researching and publishing from the interface between these disciplines. This is reflected in my split career (half the time as a clinical psychologist in the NHS and the other working in health policy research as a jobbing social scientist). My academic focus has largely been in relation to mental health and inequality (e.g. Rogers and Pilgrim, 2020; Rogers and Pilgrim, 2003).

With my interests and mandate duly declared, below I address three main matters: the legitimation crisis of British psychology; the risk of uni-disciplinary knowledge claims and interest work; and the particular risk of psychological reductionism, given the capture of organisations by versions of identity politics. All of these form the embedding context of the campaign to add social class to the list of protected characteristics.  

I finish with some ideas about the modest contribution that psychology might make to our understanding of social class, within the recent constraining norms of identity politics. I also caution against psychologists indulging in identity politics campaigns. In my view, they jeopardise both our individual intellectual curiosity and our collective disciplinary credibility. They close down curiosity and merely demand that we adhere to new moral strictures in an unquestioning manner.

1 The legitimation crisis of British psychology

A view from British psychologists about anything of public policy relevance is being expressed from a position of weak legitimacy for two additive reasons. First, the body claiming to uphold academic values (the BPS) has proved itself to be neither a learned nor a learning organisation. That legitimation crisis has been evidenced by the following:

1 In recent times the BPS has lost one after another elected President and some have tried and failed to correct the evident dysfunction they encountered after their election. In 2020 no less than three departed over a two month period, with two resigning and one being expelled before their period of office was up. The last of these is now taking his case to an Employment Tribunal, which will lead to the inner workings of the BPS being exposed to forensic public scrutiny for the first time. In advance of this case being heard, those of us who have been campaigning to open up the BPS to public scrutiny, will outline their conclusions presently (Pilgrim, 2022a). We have recorded the process of the campaign on a blog and on Twitter, and these can be accessed immediately (BPSWatch.com; FakeBPSCommentary @psychsocwatchuk).

2 In 2020 a major fraud came to light, implicating a former employee. In January 2022 she was sentenced to 28 months in prison for defrauding the Society of over £70,000. She had been imprisoned in the past for a similar offence in two other organization (a total of 17 offences). The BPS appointed her despite this past record noted very publicly in the press. Since the turn of this century, other ‘financial irregularities’ in the Society have been dealt with by internal investigations and staff departures. The BPS membership has been kept in the dark about these events, with no account being offered in The Psychologist of the unfolding drama of the past two years.

3 The Charity Commission has been ‘engaged’ with the Society about its broken complaints process and its lack of adequate governance. However, to date this engagement has not ensured any observable organizational reform of substance. The Commission has received many expressions of concern from BPS members, and this pattern continues as the crisis fails to resolve. A particular challenge we face at present is that the Charity Commission itself has been ineffectual.

4 Whilst fair charges of misgovernance and corruption can be made about the BPS, these accusations have not been addressed publicly, or fairly and squarely, by the leadership of the Society. Instead, legitimate criticisms and queries have been ignored and denied.

5 For a year (between November 2020 and November 2021) the Chief Executive Officer of the Society was suspended in the wake of the fraud investigation noted in 2 above. His Finance Director was also suspended at the same time (November, 2020) but within a month he left to take up a new position at the National Lottery, while still under investigation.

6 Despite all of the above shenanigans, the leadership of the Society has failed to keep its members informed of the crisis. The BPS is allegedly a membership organization, and good practice, according to the Charity Commission, requires transparency and accountability from the Board of Trustees and the Senior Management Team. They have clearly failed in that regard.

7 This organizational turbulence reflects longstanding structural and cultural difficulties in the Society in recent decades.  At the heart of the problem is that the Board of Trustees is riven with conflicts of interest and it has no truly independent members (though some minor tinkering of about this basic fault has now emerged). Since the 1960s it has been a sham of a proper Board of Trustees, expected reasonably under charity law.

Not only but also…..

Even if the BPS were not a case study in organisational dysfunction (which currently it patently is) there is a second source of the legitimation crisis in British psychology, viz: the rise of methodologism in the midst of epistemological incoherence. For the first half of the 20th century, psychologists followed the tradition of British empiricism announced by Ward and Rivers (1904). For the second half it then struggled to adapt to the modish postmodern turn (Kvale, 1992). 

Squaring this circle has been a challenge for the discipline. During the twentieth century, it lurched between a positivist confidence in fact building (from a mixture of experimentalism and the actuarial approach) and a rejection of facts in preference for unending perspectives, narratives, discourses and discourses about discourses in the tradition of Nietzsche (Pilgrim, 2020). This left the discipline in a confused and confusing state, with the BPS tending to describe itself vaguely, but understandably, as a ‘broad church’. It is no longer clear what psychology as a science actually means (e.g. Smedslund, 2016; Snoeyenbos and Putney, 1980).

Today in the corridors of any psychology department that incoherence is apparent and the only remaining rhetoric of justification for a coherent disciplinary character is methodological rigour, with the compatibility of quantitative and qualitative methods being far from self-evident. Beyond ‘methodologism’ or the ‘methodological imperative’ (Gao, 2014) are a legion of psychological theories, some of which are aligned and some of which are totally incommensurable. 

Given this legitimation crisis, why should British psychologists at present have any policy plausibility or inspire public confidence? How can we appeal for the need for participatory democracy, when our own professional and disciplinary body is the very opposite of democratic? Given that those in the BPS, reporting in this special issue class discrimination, are themselves now part of middle class life, what point is exactly being made, beyond virtue signalling and special pleading?  

The meritocratic discourse of equal opportunity is unremarkable across our current political spectrum: who is formally against it in any major political party? Given that doxa in our political class, we tend to find a self-serving trope. We are offered stories of success or exclusion, which tend to centre on the moral virtue of being from a poorer background. However, it is a clouded window into understanding the complexity of social inequality. 

Like many others in my age cohort I came from a working class background and am now middle class. However, my personal experience (or anyone else’s in the same boat) really contributes very little to an understanding of social inequality. To mention it at all brings with it legitimate suspicions of hypocrisy and narcissism. It can have marketing value for multi-millionaire rock stars, who dress the part for their audiences (Womack et al, 2012). Politicians of left and right appeal to our sympathies and votes, when alluding to their humble origins. That same pattern is repeating in professional (note) organisations like the BPS. 

Asking individuals to illuminate societal functioning from their experience generates highly partial, and possibly misleading, forms of sociological understanding (Archer, 2000). Moreover, a transition from working class to middle class life entails accruing cultural power in a new position of influence, even if the cultural field is less powerful than that of the economic sphere (Bourdieu, 1984). To allude to one’s past working class credentials for current ‘street credibility’, as an oppressed person, is a form of having one’s cake and eating it. 

2 The problem of uni-disciplinary knowledge claims and interest work

Even if British psychology were not characterised by the above legitimation crisis, it would still have a remaining challenge. Psychology, like other disciplines, will be prone to oversell its relevance and encourage psychological reductionism in its own ranks, as well as for the publics it appeals to and relies upon for employment and status. The very fact that a ‘special issue’ of The Psychologist about social class was published, indicates the weak a priori authority psychologists have about it, or any other topic which is partially or wholly social, not individual, in character. 

These social phenomena can then become a bolt on consideration, with psychologists looking hither and thither for their special contribution.  This is not to say that psychology has nothing to offer (below I indicate what that is) but the pastiche of knowledge in the discipline of old fashioned positivism (pace Ward and Rivers) and the postmodern preoccupation with perspectives and narratives has led to disciplinary incoherence. What exactly is, or would be, ‘the psychology’ of social class (or any other social topic)? To answer that question, the discipline must first start with a good dose of epistemic humility, about its inner philosophical turmoil, largely un-reflected upon, and its relative ignorance about contributions from other disciplines. 

Moreover, in the latter regard, the forms of psychological insight that have been offered, and importantly have giving due weight to social context, may be little known in the ranks of trained psychologists. After all, ipso facto they are not economists, political scientists or sociologists. Their awareness of the existing and considerable literature in these other disciplines is likely to be absent or incidental. Accordingly, when outside inspiration is conceded by psychologists, then even the basic facts may be sketchy. 

This problem of the sketchy knowledge of psychologists of social and political science, is amplified by the epistemic background of those outside who, have made major contributions already to our understanding of the psychosocial aspects of social class. This has put to shame what psychologists have developed in comparison to date (e.g.Sennett, 2003). 

Moreover, the post-positivist and post-Marxian work of the later Frankfurt School speaks directly to those writing in this special issue (Habermas 1973; Honneth, 2007), while being steeped in sociological sophistication. Broadly those psychosocial insights have been offered by the incorporation of ideas from Weber, Marx and Bourdieu; three key contributors to our understanding of social class, who are not on the undergraduate curriculum in British psychology departments (to my knowledge). Some psychologists may have been blessed already with a ‘sociological imagination’ (Mills, 1959) but if that is the case, their teachers will not typically recognise and encourage its development. 

This is the epistemological context of psychological reductionism and the risks of psychology overselling its relevance, about a topic which has been explored already and over many decades by non-psychologists (Atkinson, 2015). Psychologists are not only ‘late to the show’, there is a risk that the confidence of uni-disciplinary reasoning creates an inflated sense of their own relevance or importance. 

All disciplines are prone to some extent to this mixture of arrogance and ignorance; this is not an accusation about psychology alone. It reflects the self-reinforcing role of the sub-division of intellectual labour in the modern academy, which is now an abiding obstacle to the interdisciplinary cooperation, required pragmatically in order to solve humanity’s considerable current challenges.

3 Psychological reductionism and social phenomena

A focus on protected characteristics brings with it an inherent risk of psychological reductionism. The emphasis will on individual rights and prospective victimhood. That focus became evident in Western cultures after the postmodern turn and was influential beyond psychology as a discipline. For example, the concept of intersectionality developed in the USA, within its own very particular cultural context of individualism, national exceptionalism and the demands of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

Initially, intersectionality usefully illuminated complex social determinants of oppressions operating in synergy (Bell, 1973; Crenshaw, 1991). This was not reductionist about individuals but argued that overlapping social groupmembership placed some people at particular risk of oppression on average compared to those in other groups. Thus oppression was about supra-personal generative mechanisms in a shared social context and was thus a window into social determinants. 

However, individualism then crept in increasingly, with a shift away from intersecting socio-economic forces towards a kaleidoscope of subjectivities. Oppression then became more and more about individual victimhood and less and less about structural disparities of power and wealth. That alteration of focus, from objective complexity to subjective reporting, was encouraged by liberal third wave feminism and Queer Theory. These displaced the material focus of both old school social science and second wave feminism (Butler, 1990; Rubin, 1992).

From then on, social justice became defined by what individuals claimed about themselves. This culminated in our current context of identity politics (Pilgrim, 2022b). These have divided people against one another within an unending personalistic focus on epistemological privilege, self-righteous indignation, ‘calling out’, ‘cancel culture’, special pleading for particular groups and a morass of daily moralisations or ‘moral grandstanding’  (Tosi and Warmke, 2020).

Accordingly, our lives are increasingly governed now by what Loic Wacquant calls the ‘logic of the trial’, where we are all judge and jury but might find ourselves in the dock as well. With social media, this can lead to us being turned upon by the cyber-mob for saying the wrong thing, or even simply saying nothing (e.g. ‘white silence is violence’). Our careers can be ended and anonymous online death threats have become so prevalent that they are now unremarkable (e.g. ‘kill a TERF’).  

Equality and diversity training has become an industry on the back of this self-righteous civil chaos (Pluckrose and Lindsay, 2020; Williams, 2021) and people stopped talking calmly and analytically and began shouting at one another instead (Charles, 2020). Identity politics and their personalistic rationale have given comfort to the paedophile, the white supremacist and the feudal theocrat, not just those on the ‘woke’ left (François, and Godwin,2008; Belew, 2020; Hansen, 2021; O’Carroll, 1980; Sen 2006).

As Nancy Fraser noted in response to this unnerving scenario, there is little point in moralising angrily about what she called ‘parity of participation’ in relation to individuals, unless we also calmly consider and understand their conditions of possibility (i.e. their wider embedding social and economic divisions). This means shifting our focus from individuals to social, and even at times biological, material reality (Fraser, 1999; Flatschart, 2017; Benton, 1991). It also means returning to a supra-personal focus on capitalism, patriarchy and post-colonial legacies as social forces.  

With the emergence and new doxa of identity politics, the duality of social class as both an objective aspect of social ontology and a reported subjective experience explored by Marx, Weber and subsequently in deeper ways by Bourdieu was lost (Marx, 1859/1968; Weber, 1905/2001; Bourdieu, 1987). Suddenly the lop-sided priority was on personal experience and group membership. For identity politics this became the alpha and omega of understanding power. 

Psychological and cultural reductionism then awaits and this might cover up, not just expose, injustices, with policy makers exploiting the unending judgmental relativism of the postmodern era, with its appeal to linguistic variance.  Remember that under Thatcherism we had ‘health variations’ not ‘health inequalities’? Note how Rishi Sunak is being described as coming from a ‘humble background’ in his candidacy to replace Boris Johnson. Words alone are cheap and slippery, when we address social justice today and the postmodern turn is quite rightly also called the ‘linguistic turn’. Accordingly, here is the prescient insight of the humourist Jules Feiffer:

I used to think that I was poor. Then they told me that I wasn’t poor, I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived. Then they told me deprived was a bad image, I was underprivileged. Then they told me under-privileged was over-used, I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a cent but I have a great vocabulary.  (Feiffer, cited in Pilger, 1989)

A narrow preoccupation with protected characteristics and the valorisation of subjective identities and discourse, have encouraged this problem of class being unanchored from its objective context. We can easily forget that although ideas might indeed be causally efficacious, power also resides in the non-discursive realm of material reality (Bhaskar, 1997). The latter refers to our relationship to both nature and social structures.

Policy capture, consumerism and neoliberalism

A loss, or lack, of sophistication about both biological and social ontology has at times left organisations captured by group special pleading. An example here is the controversial emergence of the gender document produced by the BPS, driven by transgender activism. This has fed into the febrile and contested field of policy development about transgender healthcare (Pilgrim, 2021). 

In a similar manner, those aligned with the False Memory Society took charge of the BPS working group on memory and the law (Conway and Pilgrim, 2022). This use of the BPS as a vehicle for policy lobbying is now obvious (including in this case, the use of a special edition of The Psychologist to promote a particular cause). This scenario reflects a combination of weak membership engagement and poor governance at the centre, covered in the first section above. 

Those able and willing to put the hours in to pursue a particular policy goal can readily exploit that unhealthy structure. I have been party to such a capture myself in relation to documents on psychosis and psychiatric diagnosis. So my point here is about process not content. We all may have various preferences and value-judgements in relation to the latter but it is the process of weak democracy and poor governance in the BPS, which is at issue here.

Poor governance has also allowed those leading the organisation to make ex cathedra decisions and statements with no consultation. For example, the President of the BPS announced on social media (Ukraine flag always for now dutifully provided) that ‘we’ had decided to vote to expel Russians from the EPA. Maybe some Russian psychologists were under threat at home and maybe a dialogue with them might have been illuminating. But why bother with that sensitive approach to international dialogue, cooperation and support, which might require the effort of considered negotiations, when virtue signalling online is prioritised? Rapid fire clictivism now dominates civil life replacing proper deliberation about a complex world. As Charles (ibid) says of clictivism, in the vernacular, “it wants to be activism, but it can’t be arsed”.

In our neoliberal context, organisations (such as the BPS) are concerned to appeal to their ‘customers’ in a way that does not damage their income generation but rather improves it. More widely in the market place, the ‘pink pound’, the ‘grey pound’ and the ‘black dollar’ are precious commodities (Goulding, 1999; Matthews and Besemer, 2015; Yewande et al, 2020).

Cable sports channels can safely endorse Black Lives Matter (BLM) and ‘taking the knee’ to ‘root out racism on or off the field’ is a safe piety, which requires no critical analysis of the global soccer industry. The latter has been a place for kleptocrats to launder their money. It is a vehicle for upward social mobility for poor Africans and working class European youngsters. It has been a commercial opportunity to expand the gambling industry, which ruins countless lives. 

None of that complexity, inviting socio-economic analysis, is touched by virtue signalling from the rich and powerful to keep their customers satisfied by the marketing endorsement of BLM. After all, who would be pro-racist or admit to it publicly? Neoliberalism and identity politics fit hand in glove. This context of neoliberalism is an important driver of personalistic reasoning, the displacement of participatory or deliberative democracy by identity politics and the shift to the protected characteristics approach to social justice (Arendt, 2005). 

Apples and oranges

And if we do endorse such a protected characteristic listing of potential victimhood, then more analysis is required, if for no other reason, than it contains apples and oranges, when viewed ontologically not merely epistemologically. Under the current nine point listing two of them are fixed by biological ontology. Our sex is described (not ‘ascribed’) at birth or prenatally and is locked from cradle to grave by our chromosomes. The disadvantage then created by patriarchy, when brought up as a girl, becomes part of social ontology. 

Similarly, when we are born defines immutably the limits of our existence in time. Our life span is limited and so age is a non-discursive matter: we grow older and eventually we die.  That is a biological fact for all living organisms-we cannot talk our way out of this (Callinicos, 1993). On my deathbed, self-identifying as being alive with my last breath will not save me. As with our sex, we cannot defy the material constraints of the natural world by merely making subjective declarations, of the ‘I identify as X’ type. At this point social constructionism becomes a form of social psychosis (Craib, 1997). (The anti-realism of strong social constructionism in British psychology has been explored by Cromby and Nightingale (1999).)

However, elsewhere on the list, biology is still present but it is far less relevant. Other mammals may pair for sexual reproduction but they do not get married. They have no rich view of themselves as having a sexual orientation and your pet dog will have no religious identity or ever become a jihadist (Bentall, 2018). Our capacity for meta-cognitions and meta-statements bequeathed by evolution, given our enlarged cerebrum, affords our capacity to be both moral agents and rule following interdependent beings. Normativity is complex and shifts over time and place but it always exists as a driver of human societies. It is the source of political ideologies, which argue for the retention of current inequalities in a social order, or seek to transform them (Savage, 2000).

Thus, this nine point list contains items which are not ontologically equivalent. Social class if added, like race, is ambiguous because it is both a social ascription experienced personally as a matter of standing, status, honour or self-respect and it is derived from supra-personal socio-economic disparities (Wacquant, 2022 a&b). Psychology potentially has something to say about the former but it might be wise to leave expertise about the latter to social and political scientists and rapidly learn from them about what they already have had to say. 

Does psychology have anything meaningful to say about protected characteristics?

Given my criticisms above, this question remains pertinent. The contributors to the special issue on the one hand confess the ‘scant evidence’ in psychology and yet there is a massive failure (wilful or from ignorance) to concede that other disciplines have already addressed the topic at length. The ambivalence about positivism and perspectivism also is evident. There is angst about being able to measure social class as a fixed variable (the old positivist’s dilemma) but also a discursive focus on the stories that people tell about their lives and their possible identity confusion over time (the postmodern norm). 

These tensions are there too in social and political science more widely, but the difference is that they are directly acknowledged as both a theoretical question and one of methodological options. This has led then to a higher order discussion in sociology about reflexivity (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992; Donati and Archer, 2015). Such a higher order discussion is surely now required in psychology. At present that has started in a very personalistic place, tinged heavily with special pleading, i.e. psychologists reflecting on their own class position over time and talking about access to the discipline. However, this is a start of sorts.

For now, with their angst about measurement on the one hand and story-telling on the other, psychologists still have something to offer, as the contributors to the special issue make clear.  I would add some other opportunities from within. Social psychology has provided some useful material on new social movements, group dynamics and prejudice (e.g. Leyens et al 2000; van Zomeren, 2014).

Evolutionary and cognitive psychology inform us about slow and fast thinking. The latter is part of the current problem of binary reasoning in the dead end of identity politics, with its moral grandstanding (Dutton, 2020). The sub-text of special pleading by the various fractions of identity politics is one of ‘inside good, outside bad’ binary logic: ‘My group and I are virtuous and vulnerable but those outside are bad and guilty, until proven innocent, of victimising me’. 

Binary reasoning begets moral absolutism, which could be a topic of interest for psychologists, as moral philosophers have already noted (Neiman, 2011). The splintering divisions of identity politics ensure hostility not solidarity and these invite psychological description, interpretation and possible explanation, as social psychological phenomena. This might augment, empirically, the arguments made by those such as Neiman cited.

Psychologists might also put their own house in order (from the undergraduate curriculum upwards) about construct clarification and validity, especially in relation to biological and social attributions. For example, in relation to my point about apples and oranges on the nine point list, disability subsumes biological impairment (affecting the functional capability of all animals, not just humans) but also the normative evaluation of those impairments. The ‘social model’ of disability, with its emphasis on enablement and stigma, tends to focus on the social construction of disability but this is a matter of contention. 

Its application to mental health is even more problematic and note that the elephant in the room about the list is that psychiatric patients have their citizenship habitually constrained lawfully and without trial under ‘mental health law’, so called (Pilgrim and Tomasini, 2012). How is the Equality Act relevant to, or compatible with this, routine authoritarian override from agents of the state? Transgender politics are fraught and unresolved, with advocates of sex-based rights complaining about those politics reflecting a patriarchal “men’s movement” (Brunskill-Evans, 2020). Black feminists did not take kindly to the excesses of secessionist black power in the USA, dominated by a form of religious patriarchy (Allen, 1996; Collins, 2006). 

These are some examples, amongst many, of the divisiveness of identity politics and the zero-sum game of competing claims of personal oppression or victimhood. Psychologists may wish to research the character of those claims and the people who are making them. Despite the risk of psychological reductionism, my view is that complex research task warrants more, not less, psychological understanding. However, the latter requires the co-presence of a moderating and genuine sociological imagination. Without that, psychological reductionism will inevitably follow. 

The wide differences of point of view in the current chaos of identity politics and our ‘culture wars’ warrant considered personal exploration. Also surveys by political psychologists might offer information on fluxing views of the popularity of sub-group opinions today. If psychologists are genuinely interested in the topic of living with inequalities then campaigning for one sub-group will overly narrow their intellectual responsibility. 

Class more than the other nine pre-existing protected characteristics is tautologically about inequality (the clue is in the name), though some feminists make a similar argument and designate sex as a class. If the term inherently signals discrepancies of power, wealth, ownership and standing, then surely psychologists should also be interested in the rich and those in the middle, not just the poor and the powerless. For example, the very rich experience and express personal insecurity (Frank, 2008) and even our royals, with or without cynicism, episodically signal their psychological vulnerability. (In Britain in recent times we have witnessed one prince selling the Big Issue and another campaigning about mental health problems.) 

The search for connectivity with others and the wish to be seen as ‘ordinary’ is common in the super-rich, which is psychologically intriguing and warrants more research. A good role model about being open-minded in our research curiosity was the early work of Marie Jahoda, who included Nazis in her social psychological studies of prejudice. Studying all-comers about living with inequalities is surely our academic duty, which might be clouded and diverted by single issue public policy lobbying. 

Thus there is plenty for psychologists to work with, while retaining their tenuous disciplinary unity with its compromises about methodology. My view though is that before that exercise, psychologists should take a peek into what other disciplines have already achieved in relation to psycho-social insights, so that wheels are not re-invented. More importantly, in this case they may wish to reflect carefully on the risks of being swept along by the current norms of their own wider context, with its confusing wrong turn into the conservative cul-de-sac of identity politics. 

Studying identity politics (or the psychological character of ‘protected characteristics’) on the one hand, and embracing a campaigning loyalty to them as citizens on the other, are different matters. If they become conflated then surely the latter will undermine the former. Empirical detachment is particularly challenging in human science, because we are part of our own embedding context. The task is not impossible but it is difficult. This is the very reason why we need to reflect upon the best way to maximise its limits, when producing knowledge claims and defending respectful free expression about their merits. 

Today self-censorship in the academy has mirrored the wider acceptance of the suppression of freedom of expression, which might create a sense of temporary virtue but is not healthy for either knowledge production or democracy. Reflexivity includes humility, not certainty, and requires us to respect those we do not particularly like, as a focus of our academic curiosity. By contrast, identity politics demands that traditional cautions about ad hominem reasoning are dismissed and then actually inverted, with epistemological privilege, ‘perspectivism’ and the ‘logic of the trial’ now defining legitimacy. If we wish, as citizens, to indulge in identity politics campaigns that is a personal option. However, we do so at our peril, if we also want to retain credibility as human scientists.


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"The Psychologist", Board of Trustees, Governance

In the name of God, go!

David Pilgrim posts….

The BPS surely has reached a point where Cromwell’s advice applies. The leadership needs to go and a new regime installed. Many people in recent times have been perplexed and angry, in equal measure, when trying to hold power to account in the BPS.  Harry Truman may have had a notice on his desk saying ‘The buck stops here’, but that stricture went long ago in modern leadership. We are now in neoliberal narcissistic times. What does ‘taking full responsibility’ actually mean any more in public life? Boris Johnson and Sarb Bajwa seem to me to be peas from the same pod.

Many in Bajwa’s position might have been sacked on the very day that the large fraud under their watch was first exposed, but he was not. The Board of ‘Trustees’ suspended him (along with the Finance Director who smartly jumped ship in a month to be the Finance Director of the National Lottery Community Fund).  But those ‘Trustees’ were culpable in the mismanagement of the fraud and so the survival of Bajwa is only one matter to reflect upon. In the future they may well be subject to legacy liability.

The Board knew of the fraud in January 2020 but the two at the top were not suspended until November. What were the Board doing in all those months? What were the toing and froing Presidents (Murphy and McLaughlin) doing in relation to the material fact of the fraud in that interim period? Whatever it was, the membership was certainly not kept informed. The ever biddable Psychologist retained its complicit silence. A few close onlookers, realising what was happening, were torn between George Orwell and Lewis Carroll for apposite literary allusions.  

Bajwa, with the full confidence of the Board, returned after paid leave for a year.  He defaulted to his old confident ways, aided and abetted now by the ‘election’ of an illegitimate President, who replaced the stitched up and spat out Nigel MacLennan.  The latter being of personal integrity, and seeking proper transparency for members, would not be tolerated for too long, which proved to be the case. The cabal conspired successfully to expel him and this was not the suspended CEO’s responsibility, even if much else was and still is.

More bullshit from the top in 2022

Bajwa’s joint statement with Katherine Carpenter looked to a shiny future, turning their faces in personal convenience away from a dismal past. Truth and reconciliation were clearly not going to be on the cards for them, as that would require a thorough and open historical appraisal of organisational failure.  At this point, once more take your pick between the sense making of Orwell or Carroll. 

The bullshit of their joint piece in (you guessed it) The Psychologist (January 2022: 4-5) is extraordinary even by recent standards in the BPS. They remind us of ‘the importance of placing listening and sharing at the heart of everything we do.’ Really? Keywords recur in management rhetoric today including: ‘challenges’; ‘beating heart’; ‘rainbow spectrum’; ‘broad church’; ‘united mission’; ‘culture of togetherness’ (the clichés just keep on coming and they are all there in this piece ). Somebody actually sits down and writes this drivel – is there a handbook for managers they crib from? But the best is kept till last, given recent events. This appears in print and for the historical record on page 5:

We can commit from the outset, however, always to do our best to communicate openly and transparently, and to be the sharer of good news and bad. This will take courage, but we both believe that by pledging our full accountability to our members, we can only strengthen the trust between us. This is our commitment-please join us!

During the past two years, the public and BPS members have been kept well and truly in the dark or offered YouTube propaganda about the outcome of a show trial. Are we really supposed to believe a single word of that paragraph? Having said this, the word ‘outset’ might signal that this is a new commitment (like a New Year’s resolution). But, if so, are they implying that they have indeed been doing the very opposite until January 1st 2022?

Carpenter is a senior manager in the NHS. If a scandal, of the scale we are facing surrounding the fraud, were to have occurred in her NHS Trust, there would have been a critical incident report made and a look back exercise announced. The BPS though plays by its own rules and these are made up as it goes along by the cabal. They act, not in the interests of members with the long term reputation of the Society in mind, but in their own. This will become clear with a proper historical reckoning, but until then we are all lumbered with self-interested short-termism.

Never mind that a woman with 17 offences and two prison terms behind her was appointed or that her bosses signed off one after another fraudulent claims. The cabal will just carry on and pretend that nothing of importance has happened. No heads need to roll and no statement required. The vague cliché of ‘lessons learned’ will suffice along with a ‘poor me’ plea that this has been a ‘challenging year’. Well, indeed, it has been extremely challenging for members of the BPS and the general public to find out what has gone on  and who has been personally responsible. So ‘challenging for whom and about what?’, we might all well ask. 

Bajwa as a role model of accountability

Talking of past form, Bajwa has been a poor role model for claimed transparency. His modus operandi has been deceptively simple: when people contact him about a matter that is not to his taste, then he simply does not reply to them. We have, on record, several examples of how mails from both individuals and in multi-signed versions have been simply ignored by Bajwa. Before his suspension, David Marks wrote to him about opening up a proper scrutiny of the Eysenck scandal. (This was twenty five years after the BPS were first contacted about the matter by Anthony Pelosi.) Marks was blanked by Bajwa. Three (sic) years later, after the latter had returned to his role, he still did not reply or apologise. He left it to a subordinate, Rachel Scudamore (Orwellian title, ‘Head of Quality Assurance and Standards’) to offer a viewpoint on the matter, using the first person plural in her token apology. Why did Bajwa not personally apologise in the first person singular? The answer seems to be, ‘because he could’.  

What is the point of being the CEO of any organisation if you are not the final resting place of accountability? In my view, Bajwa has brought more shame on an already shameful organisation. These dilettante managers with no respect for academic values are bringing British psychology into disrepute. In a separate blog piece, we will soon revisit how this standard setting of obfuscation and disrespect for members from the top then affects the staff culture in Leicester and will continue to do so unless there is regime change.

What is to be done?

We have been coy on this blog about making concrete suggestions about what should now happen, given that the cabal and its surrounding dysfunctional regime have survived. With an ex-employee in prison after her recent episode of serial offending, and an expelled malcontent President safely dispatched, the dysfunctional system can roll on uninterrupted. It might survive for a while, even though it is in a form of weak special measures from the Charity Commission. However, nothing lasts and the truth of the shameful recent history of the BPS will be told. 

My personal view is this. Bajwa and the Board of Trustees should now resign and the Charity Commission should appoint an administrator to ensure a democratic charity in full legal and regulatory compliance. True, not faux, Trustees would then be present to work at turning around a discredited shambles of an organisation. New managers could then give due respect to the skills and talents of the membership and ensure true not rhetorical transparency. 

To cite it in full, ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.’ Cromwell’s advice remains sound but the shower running the BPS today will probably cling on to power until the Charity Commission or another legal lever will prise them from their bunker.

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

Is an authentic history of the BPS possible?

This post has been modified to include an addendum (shown after the references) to include feedback received since the original posting = Blog Administrator (8 January 2022).

David Pilgrim posts….

During 2021 the large fraud in the BPS was dismissed as a minor footnote in the Society’s accounts. Three elected Presidents disappeared over a two month period. Two resigned and another was expelled after a kangaroo court and a rigged appeal. In the interim period between the latter two events, he was publicly disparaged in a YouTube video. 

For most of the year the CEO was suspended in the wake of the fraud. A temporary President was drafted in, with the help of a contrived illegitimate election, to bolster the diminishing credibility of the Board of Trustees. The Psychologist played its faithful role, as ‘the magazine of the British Psychological Society’, in what it reported and, more importantly, what it did not.

In the midst of these political events, poorly explored in public, there was another that went under the radar.  An over-worked and under-paid part time archivist, in the History of Psychology Centre (HoPC) resigned, leaving it with no academic director or archiving staff and an uncertain future. Although the HoPC is not the singular route to build up a history of British psychology, it is fairly important. Accordingly, its sustainability, as a vaunted part of the BPS, is crucial for scholarly activity both inside and outside the Society. 

The SMT have done little or nothing to protect it in recent years. Their mind has probably been elsewhere, managing the crisis they both inherited and amplified. One tactical option they seem to have chosen is to suppress history and to be evasive about their own detailed accountability. If that interpretation is correct then their motivation to support a proper history, especially recent history, will be weak or absent.

Whatever else we might say about the BPS, it is not a learning organisation. That aspiration would entail organisational norms, which celebrated transparency and honest reflection about current problems and their antecedents. Many of the postings on this blog have explored failures of probity and the evasion of learning from them on the part of the SMT and Board of Trustees. Here I want to just focus on the possibility of a history of the BPS.

Celebratory and critical histories

Until the middle of the 20th century, British psychology was expanding slowly and loosening itself from the constraints of both medicine and philosophy. Early historical accounts, such as that of my old teacher, Lesley Hearnshaw, paid little critical attention to the Society and focused mainly on epistemological tensions (Hearnshaw, 1964). His task was empirical: map out what could be discerned to date about theory and findings, within the strengths and weaknesses of the British empiricist tradition. A critical take on that history awaited (cf. Pilgrim and Patel, 2015).

At that juncture, some early signs of malaise had to be acknowledged during historical uncovering. Hearnshaw was a friend of Cyril Burt and began to write a celebratory history of his work after his death in 1971. As the proofs were being prepared, accusations were emerging of Burt falsifying data and people. Hearnshaw had, as an old fashioned honest scholar, to re-write his ending. Hagiography had to be replaced with Burt being damned with faint praise. He had been President of the BPS (1941-1943). He was the trusty servant of the eugenic tradition developed by Pearson and Spearman at University College London. He was the main man in the mid-20th century.. He was a public intellectual promoting an elitist eugenic view of human nature and he was not challenged by his peers of the time (Chamarette, 2019). At that time he was Mr British Psychology.

Burt succeeded Spearman as Professor of Psychology at University College in 1932. He always maintained the Spearman-Pearson position on ‘innate general cognitive ability’, which could be ‘objectively determined and measured’ (Burt, 1909). After the Second World War, he shaped the structure of British schooling and his advice to policy makers was well received in his Eugenics Society lecture (Burt, 1946).

Hearnshaw sadly had to record Burt’s fall from grace for the first time, leaving others to squabble over the best post-mortem (Hearnshaw, 1979; cf. Mackintosh, 1995).  These efforts reflected efforts to respect the Popperian hope that science is self-correcting, via falsification and open contestation about findings and interpretation. In recent years, psychology in Britain and elsewhere has faced two challenges in this regard. The first is the replication crisis and the second relates to cheating; at times in psychology and other disciplines these have overlapped. 

The Burt scandal reflected badly not only on British eugenics and British psychology but also on the BPS itself, given his past Presidential role. The force of eugenic psychology meant that ideology preceded findings; Hearnshaw used the phrase accurately from logical philosophy of Burt ‘begging the question’ (Pilgrim, 2008). Findings were co-opted selectively and then massaged (or invented) to maintain a pre-existing ideological position. This drama has repeated recently in the critique of Burt’s student, Hans Eysenck. 

At the time of writing I understand that this matter is being reviewed by a group in the Society.  Eysenck’s implausible findings about cancer and personality were reviewed by King’s College (KCL). Eysenck successfully courted funding from the tobacco companies. In exchange he offered them the comforting theory that cancer-proneness and addictive tendencies were inherited. The narrative of these coming together to account for lung cancer incidence could then displace the idea that big business was encouraging addiction for profit and was the source of a major public health problem. Favourable research might augment cigarette marketing.

In 2019 the KCL review* of Eysenck’s work concluded that it was ‘unsafe’ and incompatible with expectations of good clinical research. Criticisms of this work had been known since the 1990s and eventually lobbying from those like Anthony Pelosi prompted the KCL review and the incipient look back from the BPS (Pelosi, 2019).  

An organisation without a memory?

Will the BPS be forced to deal (eventually) with the Eysenck question, as they had in days gone by to deal with Burt and his dubious findings? The jury is out for now, but the following might be relevant to note. The editor of the Journal of Health Psychology, David Marks, wrote to Sarb Bajwa in November 2018 asking for the BPS to take its responsibilities seriously about Eysenck, and received no reply. 

Three years of radio silence later and after a prompt, Marks still had no reply from the CEO but he did get a response from Rachel Scudamore (‘Head of Quality Assurance and Standards’) apologising for Bajwa’s inaction. She opted to use the first person plural to avoid a third person accusation of her manager. 

Why Bajwa did not reply apologetically himself is not known. However, it was a time when those at the centre of the BPS would quite often fail to reply to concerns. (We have reported this norm of contempt from the centre in previous postings, often about very serious matters.) One manifestation of secrecy at the centre of the BPS has been a casual indifference to membership inquiries and concerns. 

As is often the case with scenarios like this, when trying to communicate with the powers that be in the BPS, we enter an Alice in Wonderland World, while being asked to take those leading the Society seriously. Credulousness is demanded in the face of the incredible material facts. The BPS until proved otherwise, is a self-deceiving and secretive bureaucracy. For now, with its governance unreformed and a cabal culture normalised, it is an organisation without a memory (cf. Donaldson, 2002).

This much we can say

In light of the above we can see a pattern of a rhetoric of history being taken seriously, alongside evasiveness in practice about any meaningful historical reflection. The HoPC has great rhetorical value for the BPS: just go onto the website and see it there as a key advertising feature for an alleged learned body. For now, like with much that is claimed from the cabal, this is bullshit. 

The casual use of censorship by the cabal and the biddable role of The Psychologist reflect a disdain for academic freedom. Even if the HoPC were to be rescued from its near oblivion, what chance it developing and defending a critical, rather than a sycophantic and celebratory, history of the BPS? Will the SMT bother to finance such an academically independent Centre? Alternatively, will they continue to let it wither on the vine, while retaining its vacuous image cynically on the website? The BPS has huge reserves, some of which are being squandered on a poorly justified ‘Change Programme’ to the tune of (at least) £6 million. ‘Spare some change for the HoPC, governor?’ ‘Sorry mate, busy spending it elsewhere.’

As for the Eysenck review, we are all curious to watch its development. Though never given a Fellowship of the BPS, his leading role in British psychology has to be acknowledged by friend and foe alike. After his death in 1997 an annual memorial lecture was set up in his honour in the Society. It sits proudly in celebration of the British eugenic tradition, alongside the Spearman Medal. 

Some have already queried the point of mulling over Eysenck’s flawed work (maybe like digging up Cromwell’s body and chopping off his head during The Restoration in 1661) (Hall and Scarnà, 2019). However, if the BPS cannot pronounce on the integrity of Eysenck’s work then who else can? Maybe the review of these alleged sins of the past is a convenient diversion from those of the present. Either way, his own words might be an ethical guide:

I always felt that a scientist owes the world only one thing, and that is the truth as he (sic) sees it. If the truth contradicts deeply held beliefs, that is too bad. Tact and diplomacy are fine in international relations, in politics, perhaps even in business; in science only one thing matters, and that is the facts. (Eysenck, 1990: 229)

The KCL reviewers were unimpressed by the facts he favoured. At the time of writing, fourteen retractions from journals have been recorded of Eysenck’s work. His critics trace problems going back to just after the Second World War. Their vulnerability lies in Eysenck’s eugenic thought, repeating the problem of his mentor. A contradiction of his approach was that he was both a methodological behaviourist and a biogenetic ideologue. His cancer work reflected that: heredity accounted for causes but the treatment of patients warranted CBT (behaviour therapy was its ‘first wave’.) 

How the BPS review of Eysenck’s work exactly came into being, and who was chosen to be part of it, remains a mystery. As with much that goes on in the BPS we will never know. Groups emerge by grace and favour and a tap on the shoulder to candidates who will not rock the boat.  Given the preference of the CEO and the illegitimate President to look forwards, Pollyanna fashion, and never backwards, the prospect of an honest history of the BPS in the recent past looks slim indeed (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-35/january-2022/president-and-chief-executive).


The Burt and Eysenck examples show that historical clarifications, guided by Popperian criteria of scientific correction and probity, are not easy, but they are at least possible in an open democratic society. Sadly it looks as though currently the BPS does not have the intellectual culture to deliver the same expectation. Toxic managerialism and a lack of independent trustees (a structural fault traceable to 1965 and not rectified when the opportunity arose in 1988) have suppressed, rather than celebrated, the obligation to learn from experience in the public interest. 

Anti-intellectualism, censorship, secrecy, PR, spin, impression management and rigged expulsions and elections, for now dominate the decision-making priorities of the leadership. As a consequence, bullshit constantly displaces implausible claims of transparency. Maybe we will have to look outside for an authentic historical reckoning. It may have to come from the courts and investigative journalists. 


Burt, C.L. (1946) Intelligence and fertility. Eugenics Society Occasional Papers Number 2.

Burt, C.L. (1909) Experimental tests of general intelligence. British Journal of Psychology III 94-107.

Chamarette, M. (2019) Psychologists as public intellectuals: Cyril Burt at the BBC in the 1930s. Stories of Psychology Meeting organised by the History of Psychology Centre, November 7th.

Donaldson, L. (2002) An organisation with a memory. Clinical Medicine 2, 5, 524-7.

Eysenck, H.J. (1990) Rebel With A Cause London: Transaction

Hall, J. and Scarnà, A. (2019) An aggravating controversialist or ahead of his time? The Psychologist November, 32, 5.

Hearnshaw, L.S. (1979) Cyril Burt: Psychologist Icatha NY: Cornell University Press.

Hearnshaw, L.S. (1964) A Short History of British Psychology London: Methuen.

Pelosi, A.J. (2019). Personality and fatal diseases: revisiting a scientific scandal. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(4), 421-439

Pilgrim, D. (2008) The eugenic legacy in psychology and psychiatry. International Journal of Social Psychiatry 54, 3, 272-284.

Pilgrim, D. and Patel, N. (2015) The emergence of clinical psychology in the British post-war context. In J. Hall, D. Pilgrim and G. Turpin (eds) Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives HoPC Monograph No 2. Leicester: BPS.

Mackintosh, N.J. (ed) (1995) Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

* The Institute of Psychiatry, where Eysenck worked, was subsumed into KCL in 1997, hence that College of the University of London now being the academic ‘owner’ of his legacy. 


This post has prompted email feedback from colleagues. I am grateful to them for the following minor corrections and their invited clarifications.

1. The archivist who resigned in 2021 was now, I understand, full-time not part-time. She left behind an assistant to work on her own in Leicester. To date the review group, set up three years ago to reinvigorate the HoPC still has had no formal commitment from the CEO or SMT to support an academic director, who would be guaranteed full autonomy in their role. To my knowledge no meeting has taken place in the interim between the Chair of the review group and the CEO. I understand from anonymous sources that a consultant may be imported temporarily to advise on archiving. However, I have been unable to confirm this possibility and its source, if any, in SMT decision making. (A theme on this blog is the arcane nature of decision making at the centre of the BPS.) We would of course welcome a full and clear update from the CEO or the ‘Director of Knowledge and Insight’ about their intentions about the ailing HoPC. I would put a very low probability of this happening, as the SMT have opted for a wilful and consistent policy of non-engagement with us. I have also sent a letter about my concerns about the HoPC to the ‘Director of Knowledge and Insight’ (copying to the CEO). Based on past trends, there is little likelihood that I will receive a reply. Currently I am Honorary General Secretary of the History and Philosophy Section but I sent my letter in a personal capacity. The Section will of course be taking all of the above matters seriously in relation to the vulnerability of the HoPC now and its future prospects.

2. The Spearman Medal has now been abandoned by the BPS in the face of criticisms about its eugenic roots. It was awarded finally in 2020 but, note, was only set up in 1962. The latter date reflects a mainstream commitment to the eugenic tradition in British psychology well after the Second World War. The British Eugenics Society changed its name to the Galton Institute in 1989. This euphemistic naming and the current rationale for the Institute can be found on its website. In 2020 University College London, removed the names of Galton and Pearson from its rooms and buildings.

"The Psychologist", Board of Trustees, Governance

More bullshit about a shiny new future

David Pilgrim posts….

Readers of The Psychologist (first edition of the New Year) may or may not be inspired by the joint piece from Katherine Carpenter (BPS President) and Sarb Bajwa (BPS CEO), who are offering to lead us into a shiny new future. Your credulity is likely to rely on your answers to two starting questions. First, do you believe that the future of any system can be invented without reference to the reality of its past? Second, do you have grounds for trusting those currently leading the Society? My view is that both invite a negative response and here is why.

The future detached from the past

In open systems (and all human systems are open systems) future predictions are difficult. Nothing can be ruled out or ruled in for certain, apart from our individual deaths. However, systems theorists making this point (e.g. Bateson, 1972; Wilden, 1972) also recognise that there are ‘patterns that connect through time’. We can only make sense of the present by a careful description and appraisal of the past. If we do not, then we do so at our peril. The well-known cliché and truism is the adage from George Santayana, that “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” An equally relevant insight came from George Orwell in 1984: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.” In this case, those controlling the present are silencing the past and imagining a future that ipso facto cannot be gainsaid.

The piece from Carpenter and Bajwa was accompanied by a reassuring photograph of them side by side. This must be a very recent snap, because the CEO has just returned to his office after a year’s suspension, in the wake of the large fraud being investigated internally, and externally by the Leicestershire police. For those still in the dark, the initial magistrate’s hearing of the ex-employee is in January. The progress of the case will be tracked by journalists but an account in The Psychologist is probably unlikely.

Carpenter, was installed to replace the stitched up and spat out President Elect, Nigel MacLennan, during Bajwa’s paid absence. So this new alliance at the top of the organisation has leapt into action quickly to make the best of a bad job. Remember that Carpenter’s election debarred the membership voting for any of their peers as is the norm; only those on the Board of Trustees (BoT) or Senate could be candidates. The BoT just made this rule up to suit themselves at the time. In my view, and that of many now, Carpenter is an illegitimate President.

Maybe this sounds harsh or unfair, until we place the joint statement in a wider historical context; the very exercise being avoided by the two sources of central power in the Society, for now. It is silent about the details of both the current political mess and its relevant antecedents. The usual vague statements about shared difficulties in recent times are there. It is true that we have all been in the same Covid-19 boat, even if some of us have had a better cabin or window seat. But what about the political meltdown of 2020? Did we all just imagine it?  Carpenter and Bajwa are coy about this, so this is what happened, for the understandably uninformed. 

Bajwa was suspended and then returned after 12 months (sic). The BoT fully supported his return in November. However, note carefully, the Board are not independent Trustees. Since 1965 the latter status has been totally absent in the BPS. That is (one reason) why the Charity Commission remain ‘engaged’ with the BPS , though the former are being slow in their efforts and the latter seem to be oblivious to the moral and legal implications of their non-compliance to date.  The BoT are, though, accountable for their responsibilities in relation to financial probity, so the fraud must have been an unnerving scenario for them. Even resigning is not an answer because Trustees still have a ‘legacy liability’. Leaving the sinking ship is not a personal solution for Trustees, even if it may have a protective value for employees who have moved on.

With regard to the elephant in the room of independence, those involved in a charitable organization (as employees or volunteers) should be accountable to Trustees. Instead, in the BPS the ‘Trustees’ are appointed from within the organization or (in the case of the Presidential triumvirate elected but from the membership not the external public). Thus they may be Trustees, as self-defined since 1965 in the Royal Charter of the Society, but they are not properly independent and so they cannot offer impartial oversight, in accordance with expectations of good governance in a charity today.   

Even for well-intentioned people, of good faith, in the BPS these faux-trustees will inevitably have conflicts of interest. The latter are endemic to the culture of the BPS. An independent Trustee, in any charity, is one who is able to walk away from the role with no personal implications for their income, career or vested interests. This basic expectation is missing in the BPS and it has had, and continues to have, dysfunctional consequences. 

Untrustworthy leaders

Thus a structural flaw inherited from 1965 has now afforded a dysfunctional leadership culture. This well predated the additional dynamics triggered by the installation of a highly paid Senior Management Team after 2018. It is tempting to reduce the recent crisis to its appearance. Yes some of them are carpetbaggers with little or no historical understanding of British psychology or academic values.  They may well flit in and out of the Society. Yes, they indulged in arm wrestling with the BoT about who was running the BPS, that is until the meltdown created by the fraud. Then they had to spin their way out of the problem together. Yes, they colluded with the BoT in a kangaroo court to ruin the career of an honest man trying to deal with the misgovernance he had correctly identified. The scapegoating of the whistle blower Nigel MacLennan, on trumped up charges, served to create an ephemeral moment of seeming unity at the top.

All of this is true. If it is not true then a full and frank account from the SMT or BoT for the membership would be most welcomed and we will post it on this blog. However, the systemic problem in the BPS (Bateson’s ‘pattern that connects through time’) predates 2018. If a determined historian, forensic accountant or investigative journalist were to try to describe events in their entirety in the Society in the past 30 years, they would be considerably challenged for two reasons. 

First, a letter of permission would be required to access all the minutes of all the Boards (but especially the BoT). Second, and of more relevance, if that permission were granted they would find minutes that were skeletal, with important information absent or massaged to create the correct impression. This is not just about post hoc redactions. It is also what was chosen by those at meetings to record. Most readers will have witnessed the ‘this is not for minuting’ moment in many meetings in their careers. However, that tendency will have been in overdrive in the past decades of the BPS for its leaders to maintain, albeit implausibly, a ‘problem what problem?’ stance for so long.

Whether we examine the official accounts of the old oligarchy running the BPS (e.g. The Psychologist, 2017; The Psychologist, 2006) or the SMT driven-impression management more recently (to ‘control the narrative’) there has been no bad news forthcoming. When it has been hinted at, it has either been diversionary (e.g. forget the mess we created and look at our shared victimhood about Covid-19) or so vague that it is meaningless.

For example, when in that ill-advised performance Carol McGuinness read out the disparagement of Nigel MacLennan in advance of his appeal, there were vague allusions to a challenging year and being at a cross-roads. This YouTube clip available to the general public, link conveniently provided by the ever-biddable editor of The Psychologist, was an extraordinary exercise in bullshit. 

Did McGuinness tell us why the year had been challenging? No. Did she tell us what the directions on the signpost said? No. Did she tell us the relevant substance about why MacLennan has been expelled? No. Did she mention that the BPS was facing a scandal about a large fraud? No. Did she explain just how the BoT was going to respond properly and in good faith to the requests for governance change from the Charity Commission? No. Did she explain why it was worth spending £6 million on an ill-formulated ‘Change Programme’, installed without full consultation by the SMT? No. Did she mention the NCVO observation about a toxic culture in the BPS? No. Did she mention the resignation of David Murphy and his concerns about governance and finance? No. The BPS lost three elected Presidents in a period of two months in 2021, making Oscar Wilde’s comments on losing two parents a lesser joke in comparison. The list of silences goes on and on.

This context of obfuscation provides ordinary members with few grounds for vertical trust in the BPS. It is important to contrast that problem with horizontal trust. Those in say local branches or Sections tend to develop good collegial relationships with their volunteer peers and they have to suffer little or no bullshit from one another. That horizontal trust might even at times tempt some sub-systems to break away from the main body (see my conclusions below).

Bullshit then is everything that is said and not said for the powerful to remain in power. What chance then our imaginary researcher being able to grasp the recent historical picture of how the BPS has functioned at the centre in the past few decades? This question has both an empirical aspect, with its implied methodological challenge, and an ethical one about the emergence of a longstanding culture of amorality at the centre of the BPS. 

The History of Psychology Centre

If you go on to the BPS website one of the little boxes you can open is about the History of Psychology Centre. This is a personal interest (I am a past Chair of the History & Philosophy Section and its current Honorary Secretary). In that Section we are keen to encourage a serious (i.e. bullshit- free) interest in the history of British psychology and the BPS. That part of the website has many gaps and there is clearly still much un-archived material. This is not the fault of the few people doing the archiving to date, who have been over-worked and underpaid.

If we dig deeper we find a concern about political and budgetary priorities in the BPS. The Centre has struggled on for years now with a part-time archivist, technically challenged by a transitional period between hard copy and digital material to deal with. The BoT (via the Research Board) has done absolutely nothing to reinvigorate the Centre and the SMT have ignored it as a political priority. It needs more than one full time archivist and an academic director, whose role independence is guaranteed in advance. (Given the compromised role of the editor of The Psychologist, this should stand as a warning about the need for an arms-length approach to a scholarly history of the Society.) 

This point about reinvigorating the Centre and its guaranteed academic protection has been made several times from those of us in the History & Philosophy Section to no avail. The Centre remains in a parlous state (the part-time archivist has recently left and not been replaced). Compare the lack of funding of the Centre with other BoT preferences, such as the controversial £6 million change programme, paid lawyers to advise on the expulsion of critics or the campaign to regain registration powers by encouraging new members in the mental health workforce, who are not psychology graduates. The costs noted here are direct (large amounts of the members’ subscriptions or the Society’s reserves) and indirect (the transactional time involved for all concerned). The History of Psychology Centre has been ignored as an organizational priority in this context of tellingly preferred projects.

A final ideological reflection

Here is a final summary thought then on the ideological point I am making here. This is gleaned from what is called, in the technical jargon of philosophy, an ‘omissive critique’ (Pilgrim, 2020). Why do we ask some questions but not others? Why do we invest time, effort and money on some goals and policies but not others? Why do we support and enlarge this part of the organizational structure but not that part? Turning that skeptical reflection on what has been happening in the BPS, and which priorities its leaders have emphasized at the expense of others, the shiny vision from Katherine Carpenter and Sarb Bajwa bears legitimate scrutiny. 

They are part of a cabal that for now is letting the History of Psychology Centre wither on the vine, while retaining it on the website for its semiotic value of creating the impression of a learned society. They have other pressing priorities, willfully ignoring the advice of Santayana and evading the foreboding view of Orwell. They want us to look forwards not back, because that is politically expedient to preserve the status quo for those enjoying power in a purported learned Society with diminishing credibility. Moreover, the BPS seems to be incapable for now of being a learningorganization. 

A learning organization requires honesty not bullshit, and candour about past failures (Sheaff and Pilgrim, 2006). It has to be ‘an organization with a memory’, not one of conveniently contrived amnesia and the crude escapism about imagined futures.  Without this honest reckoning about the past, the BPS will be in terminal decline as a credible body, claiming to represent British psychology in its disciplinary and professional forms.  

In 2000 many in the Division of Occupational Psychology  left the Society to form the Association of Business Psychologists (renamed ‘Psychology’ in 2003). In 2017 disaffected members in the Division of Clinical Psychology left to form the Association of Clinical Psychologists.  Both groups were tired of dealing with an arcane bureaucracy, with its self-interested leadership, which had lost its way and was insensitive to the needs of its members. That fractious fracturing may be the harbinger of a dark future for the Society, no matter what the illegitimate President and the returning CEO are saying in their Pollyanna piece in the New Year of 2022.  

Bateson, G. (1972) Steps To An Ecology of Mind San Francisco: Chandler.

Pilgrim, D. (2020) Critical Realism for Psychologists London: Routledge.

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

The Psychologist (2022) Joint statement to the BPS membership from the President-Elect Katherine Carpenter and the CEO, Sarb Bajwa. January 4-5.

The Psychologist (2017) Always cheerful and positive. Carole Allan’s appreciation for the British Psychological Society’s retiring Chief Executive. November, 30, 2.

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

Wilden, A. (1972) System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange London: Tavistock.

"The Psychologist", Financial issues, Governance

Faux-accountability from the cabal

David Pilgrim posts….

Recently we have been exploring BPS bullshit [see here]. Peter Harvey’s recent post is a good example. He describes a simple request to The Psychologist to have pertinent questions answered in a public space, where the members of the BPS might have his shared curiosity. The letter was not published but passed on to the editor’s employer. A relevant reminder here is that The Psychologist is ‘...the magazine of the British Psychological Society…’. It is not refereed and all decisions about letters and articles rest in the sole hands of the editor.

Critical commentary from David Pilgrim

What can we glean from this exchange? Well, the letter was clearly too hot to handle for the editor of The Psychologist, Jon Sutton, even though its content was relevant for the BPS members who are its readership. Indeed, it raises the question about what – if anything – he might publish in a letter that pertains to the Society (rather than a response to material he has already sanctioned in previous editions). Bullshit is as much about what is not said as what is said (for the philosophically minded this invites an ‘omissive critique’). The past two years have provided those in power with the convenient shared boat experience of the pandemic. However, our collective plight has been used at times as a cover story for evasions that would probably have been there in any case. 

By blocking the publication of the letter in The Psychologist and deliberately opting to hive off the exchange to a personal response to Peter Harvey, this ensured that the whole readership was then kept in the dark about crucial matters. Jon Sutton and Diane Ashby between them yet again limited what was being explored publicly and in the public interest about an organization in crisis. From Ashby the vague descriptions we have become used to are also present in this individualized response. For example, we are offered these two desultory sentence about a grave matter that merits a full discussion for, and with, the BPS membership:

“Once the fraud was discovered an independent investigation was immediately commissioned by the Board of Trustees and actions have been taken based on its findings. You will be aware that the Chief Executive is currently on extended leave from the society.”

Here are some relevant questions that ordinary members might be interested in:

Why did many months elapse between the police investigating the fraud and the CEO being suspended? Why, initially did the Board opt to make the CEO the liaison link with the police? Why was the CEO suspended and not simply sacked? What grounds were discussed in the Board for the suspension option? Did some Board members resist any action being taken against the CEO? What actions have been taken as a result of the investigation? Ashby’s failure to provide routine bulletins to BPS members is part of a strategy from the cabal: remember the vacuous phrases about the Society being at a ‘…crossroads…’ after a ‘…challenging year…’ from Carol McGuinness in her infamous and now removed Youtube video? This vagueness signals that those in power are ‘in the know’ but are not prepared to tell ordinary mortals what they know. 

I suspect that this concerted silence about the material facts of what is happening at the centre of the BPS would have been broken had the Board been dominated by truly independent Trustees, rather than an acculturated cabal with inherent conflicts of interest. Pompous rhetoric about confidentiality was soon their cover story for secrecy. As we do not have an organization with independent Trustees, this is my guess about a path not taken since 1988.

It is important to note that Ashby was primarily appointed to lead the ‘Change Programme’ and at times she has adopted that title in correspondence, rather than ‘Deputy Chief Executive’.   But within the latter role, which she has been in now for nigh on a year, why has she not kept the members informed at all times of the crisis at the centre of the organization? Surely, that would be a primary expectation of the Charity Commission of good management practice. Those absent bulletins from Ashby might have mentioned a few facts that will be of relevance to the history of the Society in years to come. 

Apart from the silence about a major fraud and a fire at the Leicester office, other points for the imagined bulletin board would have been her comments on matters of broken governance. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, to lose one President was unfortunate, but to lose two was careless, and to lose three (note over just a two month period) was a governance catastrophe.  Ashby prefers instead to keep up appearances of probity and a ‘problem what problem?’ stance to what is being said in public. 

Other absent items from her bulletins relate to the NCVO commenting on the psychologically unsafe culture in the BPS (reported in Third Sector). No news either from her about the considerable amount of money paid to fancy lawyers, to set in train the removal a radically reforming President Elect, who was both intent on cleaning up the longstanding misgovernance and a whistle blower in waiting. Some members might have a view on whether this vindictive use of lawyers was a good use of their fees. They may have to wait some time for the facts to emerge to make that judgment but those payments were made and, to my mind, their ethics remain in considerable doubt.

Moving from the silences to what Ashby does say above, a first impression is that it seems like a lengthy exercise in transparency, especially compared to the norm from the SMT in the past year of evasions. Demands for accountability from us have been either ignored or, if they have been too persistent, elicited charges of us bullying or harassing BPS employees. Prior to that we were issued with a cease and desist notice for simply mentioning that the CEO was suspended in November 2020. 

At that point the cabal could not discern the difference between material facts (he was and remains on extended leave following his suspension) from matters of confidentiality. Maybe since then their legal advice about that distinction has now prompted Ms. Ashby’s willingness to discuss that material fact in her mail. Maybe members might also be interested in how the resolution to the hiatus in his employment will now be resolved. Such a process itself is a material fact that is known to the cabal but is not being revealed to ordinary BPS members. 

The pressure from the Charity Commission might now be a factor in this seeming change of style from the ‘Deputy Chief Executive’. Although the Commission should have done more to date, they are still ‘engaged’ in relation to changes about the lack of independence of the Board of Trustees and the broken complaints system.

In light of the above silences, why this sort of letter now and what is it actually telling us beyond waffle about everything in the garden being rosy? The answer is that it is the picture Ashby wants us to believe about the purported organisational panacea of the Change Programme. The development of the latter was an early trigger point for the removal of the President Elect. He was demanding, on behalf of the membership, a coherent rationale with credible details attached transparently about the benefits being claimed. The SMT failed to provide the Board of Trustees with that needed information; he stood firm in his demands and he paid a high price. 

This exercise in faux-accountability reveals the political relationship between The Psychologist and those who ultimately control its content. By taking control of the discourse about the current and unresolved crisis, Ashby is doing her best to pretend that the crisis does not exist. But if it does exist then her control of the discourse will eventually become threadbare. The Society will disintegrate and its legitimacy will crumble, whatever we, or Ashby, say or do not say. 

A delusion now common in politics, large and small, is that discourse is everything; that if we can develop the right ‘narrative’ then reality will be what we want it to be. This postmodern Alice-In- Wonderland madness has not just created the implausible contortions of identity politics (another instrumentally embraced convenience for the BPS cabal), it has also led to extra-discursive causal powers being ignored at our peril. Donald Trump said that global warming was not a problem and we should just sweep up leaves differently to stop forest fires. Diane Ashby says everything is under control and no problems of probity exist in the BPS. They are both wrong and this letter to Peter Harvey is a recent illustration of this point.

"The Psychologist", Change Programme, Financial issues, Governance

Where does your money go?

Peter Harvey posts….

For those of you who are not “BPS junkies”, the desire to read the Trustees Annual Report, particularly the 30 pages of accounts, may be low on your list of things to do before you die. So, more out of a sense of duty than for pleasure, I trawled through them in an (admittedly, accountancy-lite) attempt to see how members’ money was being spent. I was particularly struck by some significant sums spent on the Change Programme, high salaries and a £2m loan, so I felt that a more public debate might be of help to the membership, and a letter was sent on 17 August to the editor of The Psychologist, asking him to consider publication. 

Dear Editor,

The constraints in place around this year’s AGM mean that opportunities to ask questions were much reduced. However, in the interests of openness and transparency, I would ask that the membership has answers to the following (and, please, can we have a named, senior office-holder to respond, not an anonymous “The BPS” statement ).

1 The Change Programme has cost each member about £22 this year. Where are the objective, measurable outcomes for what amounts to about 16% of their subscription?

2 The BPS took out a £2 million loan to cover Coronavirus interruption. This is a considerable sum (subject to base rate + 1.69% interest after 12 months) for an organisation that clearly is in a very different financial situation to those businesses which depended on day-to-day income (such as the hospitality sector). The BPS also has over £21 million worth of assets. Why does the BPS add to its debt burden in what looks like an unnecessary fashion?

3 There has been a doubling of staff being paid over £60 000 (from five in 2019 to 10 in 2020). This is likely to have cost around £500 000. Is this good value for money and how is their performance measured in terms of real member benefits?

4 The total cost of these 10 relatively high earners is probably (as an estimate) around £1 000 000. This accounts for about 15% of the BPS’s total salary bill and costs each member (paying full subs)  around £10 p.a. These are the same people who, along with the Trustees, were in post whilst an alleged significant financial fraud took place. What actions has the BPS taken to hold to account any or all of any of these people, paid or otherwise, who are ultimately responsible to the membership for ensuring that there are proper financial controls not only in place but closely and effectively monitored?

You will note that I asked him to “…consider…” publishing, to which I got the reply (by return), “Will do.” (clearly a man of few words). Being a simple soul I wrote back “Not quite clear as to whether the ‘will do’ applies as in ‘will consider’ or as in ‘will publish’?”, to which I got the reply “Will consider.” (clearly no lover of verbosity). So when the October issue appeared – minus my letter  – I contacted the editor:

Dear Jon,

 I see that my letter did not appear in the month’s Psychologist. Does this mean that you are still considering it or that you have chosen not to publish. If the latter, please could you let me know why.

 Many thanks,


who replied

Dear Peter,

I’m afraid we didn’t select it for publication. I did encourage senior management to get back to you with a reply; I can chase that if it hasn’t been forthcoming.

Best wishes


My reply to this was

Dear Jon,

No, I have heard absolutely nothing from senior management. And my question about the reasons for non-appearance remains unanswered.

Best wishes,


All these were dated 23 September and the next day I got the following email

Dear Peter

I am writing in response to your letter to the Editor of the Psychologist regarding some questions following the AGM on 26 July. As you are aware, AGMs held in 2020 and 2021 were virtual events due to the government guidelines requiring us not to meet in person due to Coronavirus. For both meetings, we asked for questions before the meeting and responded to those as part of the presentations during the event. We also asked for follow up questions to be emailed to our Governance team and we have responded to those via email. I am therefore answering your questions using that approach.

1.      The Change Programme has cost each member about £22 this year. Where are the objective, measurable outcomes for what amounts to about 16% of their subscription?

The objective of the Change Programme is to deliver the scope agreed by the Board of Trustees at their meeting in June 2019, on time and within budget. This is an investment programme so outcomes include:

·      better support for our members to take active roles in the society

·      increased connectivity between member groups

·      updated ways of working which are co-created with our members and reflect changes in the profession

·      modern, up to date IT systems which meet members expectations of a digital world

2.      The BPS took out a £2 million loan to cover Coronavirus interruption. This is a considerable sum (subject to base rate + 1.69% interest after 12 months) for an organisation that clearly is in a very different financial situation to those businesses which depended on day-to-day income (such as the hospitality sector). The BPS also has over £21 million worth of assets. Why does the BPS add to its debt burden in what looks like an unnecessary fashion?

The Board of Trustees agreed to the £2m loan in October 2020 when the implications of Coronavirus were still relatively unknown for the society. It was a way of hedging against any unknown impacts. As you will have seen in the annual report and accounts, the loan can be repaid from the reserves of the society when necessary.

3.      There has been a doubling of staff being paid over £60 000 (from five in 2019 to 10 in 2020). This is likely to have cost around £500 000. Is this good value for money and how is their performance measured in terms of real member benefits?

A new senior management team structure was designed and implemented in 2019 to ensure the strategic plans of the society could be implemented. Some of these roles were more senior than before but all roles were independently evaluated before implementation. Performance is measured against personal objectives which reflect the strategic aims of the society, including member benefits.

4.      The total cost of these 10 relatively high earners is probably (as an estimate) around £1 000 000. This accounts for about 15% of the BPS’s total salary bill and costs each member (paying full subs) around £10 p.a. These are the same people who, along with the Trustees, were in post whilst an alleged significant financial fraud took place. What actions has the BPS taken to hold to account any or all of any of these people, paid or otherwise, who are ultimately responsible to the membership for ensuring that there are proper financial controls not only in place but closely and effectively monitored?

You are in error in asserting that the same people were in post on the SMT and on the Board of Trustees for the entire time the fraud was being committed.

Once the fraud was discovered an independent investigation was immediately commissioned by the Board of Trustees and actions have been taken based on its findings. You will be aware that the Chief Executive is currently on extended leave from the society.

At the AGM in July I said:

I understand that, as members, you will have real concerns about how we protect the money that ultimately comes from your membership fees.

I want to assure you that we’ve learned a great deal from the incident, and have reviewed and significantly strengthened our internal process around expenses and the use of credit cards.

Over the last year, the society has had to navigate a number of highly sensitive and confidential processes, including those directed by the police, legal specialists and our own Member Conduct process.

Some of these process are still ongoing and must remain confidential at this time, but when we are able to, we will provide a fuller explanation. I want to thank you for bearing with us on this.

Yours sincerely

Diane Ashby

Deputy Chief Executive

My initial reaction is that this leaves a number of questionable statements which I will be following-up with Diane Ashby shortly. But I present the story here so far as my initial impetus was to open a public debate (hence a letter to our house journal which proudly proclaims its function as a “…forum for communication, discussion and controversy…”), so please feel free to comment, post and discuss.  A critical commentary from David Pilgrim follows in the next post.

Oh, and the editor still hasn’t told me why he didn’t publish.

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


Memory-Based Evidence

Prescribing Rights


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/ 
"The Psychologist", Governance, IAPT

The BPS and IAPT – another failure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Mike Scott (CBT Watch)

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

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


David Pilgrim posts…

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

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

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

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

Impression management during times of crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Recent Case Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Psychologist"


Peter Harvey writes…

We are told every month that our house journal, The Psychologist, aims to fulfil the main object of the Royal Charter, “…to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied.” . I assume that the same laudable and worthy aim applies to its various manifestations on social media. So can someone please explain to me, simply and in words of one syllable, why the following tweet appeared this week…

Apart from the fact that we are the BRITISH Psychological Society (I am not sure how our Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues feel about such partisan statements), I cannot for the life of me see how football punditry and simplistic sporting ‘patriotism’ has now become part and parcel of the function of the BPS (I would remind you this is an official BPS outlet). This doesn’t even have the dubious distinction of being a sort of virtue signalling (something that is increasing apparent in some of the BPS social media posts). 

This says nothing about the psychology of sport (about which our sports psychology colleagues may well have something helpful to say), of group identity (ditto for our social psychology colleagues), how mass gatherings might impact on the spread of COVID (ditto our health psychology colleagues) – I will not go on.

This is trivial nonsense, juvenile and unworthy of a society that purports to be the serious face of British psychology.