A couple of recent posts from BPSWatch


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. 1 CommentGOVERNANCE

Fear and loathing in the BPS


David Pilgrim writes…..

On this blog we have rarely attacked individuals, mainly to avoid the inconvenience of libel claims. We would have had a ready fair comment defence, given that we have clear evidence of the actions or inactions of named actors. However, there is another reason to keep our eye on the bigger picture, beyond being cautious about moral attributions in relation to particular people. We have noted the structural problem of the Board of Trustees totally lacking independence and so being disabled from ensuring proper oversight. Even individual Trustees acting in good faith cannot be impartial at present. Also, the problems of managerialism are not limited to recent times but started gradually with the first CEO appointed in 2002. The circumstances of his rapid departure under a cloud were, to say the least, suspicious. They warrant a proper historical investigation, when the time is right.

Today, the overloaded and cautious Charity Commission, still engaged with the cabal trying to negotiate legal and regulatory compliance, could have already brought the BPS into a form of special measures as a failing organisation. This could still happen, but the regulatory weakness of the Commission is part of the story. Then there is the police investigation into both fraud and arson. These pose challenges for us and for journalists under sub judice constraints. This point also applies to the ethical and legal aspects of the show trial of Nigel MacLennan. Another contextualising consideration is the wider political zeitgeist. 

Norms of weak democracy and public passivity

Power play in civil society today reflects recent norms of amoral instrumentality: the powerful frequently do what they like with impunity. They do what they need to do to in order to defend the status quo, save their own skins and evade accountability. The ‘you do you’ mantra of a generation socialised into individualism, within a regime of neoliberalism, has led to political disengagement more widely and this infects the moral order of our current civil society. 

Many of us are now in a state of learned helplessness about shameless politicians and the management class above us, within bureaucracies, private, public or third sector. This ‘whatever it takes to survive’ normative position from the powerful, along with the ‘what is the point in trying to hold them accountable?’ response from below, is not limited to the BPS. 

For example, those working in higher education may be aware of the case of Professor Jane Hutton who was expelled as a UCU-nominated Trustee of USS. (See  As with Nigel MacLennan, there was no evidence that she was seeking personal gain from her actions but instead was acting in good faith on behalf of members. What they had in common was their persistence in asking necessary questions about governance. In both cases, a self-interested cabal spent much time, and large amounts of members’ money, in order to expel the critic, rather than dealing with the content of their concerns. Cabals enjoy the fruits of their misgovernance and those asking awkward questions may be punished and often they are. After all, shooting the messenger is a lazy option that often works. After her expulsion from the board of USS, it soon became clear that Hutton was vindicated in her analysis of the shambles in the organisation. 

I hope that Nigel MacLennan soon has the same moral victory after his public disparagement. The early signs of his vindication are good. He was the one person constantly reminding the Board of Trustees of the need for legal and regulatory compliance, being demanded quite properly by a frustrated Charity Commission. He was the one that pointed up the responsibilities of oversight held by the Trustees in general, but also specifically in relation to the unfolding story of the fraud being investigated by the police. He was the one who objected to the suppression of information about the damning NCVO report (see below). At all times he acted with integrity. For his efforts the cabal put him on a show trial and expelled him. They will now delay his appeal until the (illegitimate) election ensures his replacement. The cabal will be hoping that their insider candidate is victorious; we shall see.   

Whether MacLennan is vindicated or not, there are lessons that we can take from how other organisations treat legitimate challenges to the status quo.

Lesson One: self-serving and even corrupt leaders in charities can survive for many years. 

Lesson Two: structurally, leaders of a dysfunctional organization can adapt in various states of reform (actual or rhetorical). In the case of the BPS, the cabal will respond as slowly as it can to the demands being made by the Charity Commission about regulatory compliance. They will defer MacLennan’s appeal long enough to complete his political deletion. 

Lesson Three: individual cabal members will move on to new jobs, maybe even with profitable non-disclosure pay offs. Some members of the Senior Management Team have already bailed out in the past year (with one under investigation at the time). Ordinary members are as clueless today as they were a year ago about how and when the investigation of the CEO will be resolved. Indeed, some members are only just waking up to this simple fact, in light of the complicit silence of The Psychologist

Lesson Four: the short-term survival of careerist managers may or may not be aligned with long term the higher order values of the BPS.  I may have been a member of the BPS for forty years but the here-today-gone-tomorrow members of the Senior Management Team are calling the shots and shaping the future. From football club managers to university VCs and NHS CEOs, we now routinely recognise this pattern of opulent high turnover. This accounts for why, although the BPS website makes claims about transparency and being a learned society, in practice the cabal indulge in information suppression.

Janus-faced professionalism in the charity sector

Most political scandals are about narcissism, power, money or sex (or some permutation). Critics of charities have confirmed this pattern, and this has been at its most obvious in the ‘just giving’ wing. Scandals in Oxfam and Save The Children exemplify this point (See (; ( 

In the case of quasi-public bodies like the BPS, which have charitable status, there is another dimension needed for our analysis. This is whether professionals are role models for personal integrity and their knowledge is generated unambiguously for the public good. The take-for-granted assumption about the beneficent and socially integrative role of professionals in modernity was promoted by the sociologist Emile Durkheim. However, his conservative and uncritical stance was challenged by Max Weber, who favoured scepticism (Saks, 2010). He saw professionals as being Janus-faced; working for others often but also readily switching to advancing their own narrow interests (cognitive or economic), when and if this was required. This entails sustained political energy to dominate others inside a profession, alongside it (competitors) and outside it, with the public or client groups being the first target for domination.  I return below to Weber and the BPS. 

The legitimation crisis of the charity sector is reflected in its own current soul searching. Stuart Etherington of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has offered us a critical fundraising review and the use of data by charities has been scrutinised by the Information Commissioner’s Office. Similar doubt casting can also be found in the Public Accounts Committee about the misuse of funds. The level of cynicism about the self-interest of charities is evident in the work of David Craig and his website (Craig 2014).

Etherington’s NCVO is of direct relevance to us. It was his organisation that refused to work with the BPS because of its unsafe culture for its own employees. An irony, which has not been lost on journalists, is that a psychological Society has been dubbed psycho-toxic by those sampling its wares. 

Persecuting the righteous

If those asking awkward but fair questions like Hutton and MacLennan are punished, then most ordinary mortals will, quite understandably, keep their heads down and their mouths shut. A few years ago, a colleague had a cartoon on his pin board over his desk, reminding me of this normal diffidence, born of fear. It was in four boxes. Box 1-mother in a restaurant asks her two kids what they want. Box 2-the first kid says, ‘I’ll have the fucking pizza’. Box 3-mother clips the kid around the ear as a punishment. Box 4: (mother to second kid) ‘And what do you want?’ Second kid replies: ‘Definitely not the fucking pizza’.

Whether our metaphor is a ‘poisoned chalice’ about incoming Presidents or a ‘fucking pizza’ for the mystified and anxious ordinary member, the point is clear. Complicit silence will tend to protect the timid and enable the powerful to sit pretty, while fortune may not favour the brave when they try to bring truth to power. Cabals operate successfully at times through their capacity for conscious and deliberate intimidation. They also create an unconscious miasma of dread because we have a primitive need to believe in the protective power of parental structures (Menzies, 1975). The persecutors of Hutton and MacLennan could rely on the silent complicity from the majority, because the history of whistleblowing is one of critics suffering detriment, both financially and emotionally. 

This is where sociological insights are relevant again. Weberian sociologists, as well as being critical of the power play antics of professionals, also respond to the question ‘do organisations have feelings?’, demonstrating that psychologists do not have a monopoly on exploring affect (Albrow, 1997). The answer to the question, as we all know, is that they do. Organisational cultures have an affective dimension and sometimes departments, or even buildings, can feel warm and cosy or chillingly sinister and all stops in between. The NCVO report indicated where the organisational culture of the BPS resides on this spectrum. 

When will we ever learn?

The learning points from the above sketch are as follows. 

  • First, we should expect those in power to act in their own self-interest. 
  • Second, they may use a mixture of secrecy and emotional pressure to ensure compliance with their goals. If needs be, whistle blowers will be persecuted and expelled. 
  • Third, those with less power will be limited in their understanding of actual events and processes, compared to the cabal in control at the centre. 
  • Fourth, the less powerful will anxiously err on the side of caution, when expressing doubts or criticisms about their organisation; they keep their heads down and their mouths shut. Alternatively, they may retain a naïve faith in their concerns being taken seriously by appealing for truth and justice from the very people who are in power over them. They may be sorely disappointed. 
  • Fifth, some in power may leave, out of fear, if the game is up about their complicit role in misgovernance. If they are employees, they will try to switch employers. If they are volunteers (such as Trustees), a mixture of guilt, fear and denial may well persist about their legacy liability. 

On this blog we have drawn these conclusions about the BPS by collating and observing evidence about a range of players and their conduct, without naming them. In their case, we can say to them, ‘if the cap fits wear it’.  

An implication of the above emotional field is that transparency and democracy will be constrained or eliminated in the organisation. When secrecy is a priority, the cabal turn that into the faux virtue of confidentiality and (amongst other tactics) set about redacting their own minutes. They want pretence to triumph over honesty, and members to be kept in the dark. This mendacity is less likely if the executive wing of the organisation fails to capture control of the Board of Trustees and if the latter is truly independent. The BPS can still survive but, as a logical precondition, the current cabal and its carpetbaggers and beneficiaries will need to depart. If they stay, the organisational agony will continue and amplify. The cabal, not we as its critics, are bringing the BPS into disrepute and wrecking its future prospects. We, like the expelled President Elect, are asking legitimate questions and so supporting, not jeopardising, the survival of the BPS.  We have explored all of these points in previous entries to the blog and will continue to do so.  Given the evidence we have, we could write a book. That is what we are now doing, and it will be published later this year.  

Albrow, M. (1997) Do Organizations Have Feelings?  London: Routledge

Craig, D. (2014) The Great Charity Scandal London: Original Book Company

Menzies, I.E.P. (1975). A case study in the functioning of social systems as a defense against anxiety. In A.D. Colman & W.H. Bexton (Eds), Group Relations Reader 1 Jupiter, FL: A.K. Rice Institute.

Saks, M (2010) Analyzing the professions: The case for the neo-Weberian approach. Comparative Sociology 9(6): 887–915.Leave a comment

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