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

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CENSORSHIPFINANCIAL ISSUESGOVERNANCEMEMORY AND THE LAW GROUP

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My friend Dave Pilgrim over at BPSWatch writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who will provide the history of this shameful period?

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

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

Talking of looking back…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by David F Marks

Author, editor, psychologist.

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