From the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee

…with extra online comment from the Managing Editor.

Ever since The Psychologist emerged from the Bulletin of the British Psychological Society in 1988, there has been an editorial advisory committee of members charged with regularly assessing the magazine’s performance against its published policies and procedures. Discussions within the committee, and beyond with both Society trustees and management, have often considered the role of The Psychologist as a Society publication reporting on the Society itself. Recently, members again requested such consideration from the committee, and this was given a full airing at our June meeting. The committee comprises people from a range of ethnic, cultural, and psychology backgrounds, so our discussions include diverse viewpoints.

The members present were in clear agreement that it has been a turbulent year for the British Psychological Society, often with a lack of regular communication and leadership from the centre. We care deeply about our professional membership body, and an information vacuum will always be a concern – particularly if that vacuum is filled by sources ranging from national press to personal blogs, and we have no way of assessing how reliable they are or keeping up with them all as we lack direct access to all the information.

However, the committee also recognise challenges inherent to The Psychologist’s role in communications around the Society. Some areas – particularly those around Society outputs grounded in psychological theory, research and practice – have and always will be covered, even if controversial. Some involve ongoing legal and / or personnel issues where it is not possible or appropriate for a Society publication to comment, as the Society has a duty of care to its employees. Some are governance issues where The Psychologist has reported and will continue to do so, as part of a wider Society comms effort.

In discussing specific examples of what has and has not been included in the magazine over the past year or so, the committee were satisfied that the editor’s independence has been maintained – the magazine is not being silenced. There was a reminder that the magazine has always prioritised member voices, so constructive contributions are encouraged; and as soon as new leadership is in place, those individuals will be encouraged to have a presence and voice in the magazine to focus on how the Society can now move forward.

In closing, it’s worth noting that these communication issues were discussed at length, and we struggled to come to obvious ‘solutions’. The conversations will continue. The Psychologist means many very different things to many very different people. We are clear that it is a magazine, for a large and international audience that reaches well beyond the Society membership. The editorial team have always had a challenge on their hands meeting expectations month after month, and now day after day, often in an increasingly polarised online world. They have our full support in that, and we will continue to frame that support within our shared values of openness, transparency, accuracy and respect for individuals who work in the organisation.

- Dr Richard Stephens, Chair, on behalf of the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee. [email protected]

…and from the Managing Editor

I’ve spent more than two decades as a member of the British Psychological Society, and Editor of its magazine The Psychologist. I’m no stranger to choppy waters, and I firmly believe we have plotted a progressive course with hard graft, integrity and expert guidance from the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee of Society members. I’ve always had an amazing crew, but (for now) I am the captain of the ship. I’m proud to have that responsibility, and to be accountable to that Committee of Society members.

From time to time, I have written about our ‘flawed but precious’ Society and the role of The Psychologist within it and beyond. More often, I prefer to let our output speak for itself, and regularly check in with the Advisory Committee to see if we’re going in the right direction. But the nature of some recent online comment has prompted me to share some thoughts.

As stated on the inside front cover each month, The Psychologist ‘provides a forum for communication, discussion and controversy among all members of the Society, and aims to fulfil the main object of the Royal Charter, to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied’. Like it or not, we are a magazine, which often means a mix of the personal and professional, and an attempt to engage as well as inform, across platforms with large and broad reach. I think it’s significant that we are The Psychologist; we try to cover psychologists’ other interests, shared values, and more. We’re very unusual in pulling together a huge amount of content each month which relies so heavily on psychologists in their own voices. Increasingly we have a significant online presence, and we’re also just one part of an integrated Society comms strategy.

All of that feeds into my decisions on content. I’m the first to admit we’ve never quite nailed that ‘discussion and controversy’ aspect. We’re far from perfect, and I’ve personally made some big errors of judgement over the years. But we do our level best to keep improving and evolving, and both our own Committee and regular feedback we receive suggests that many of you do find plenty of pieces of interest in our pages.

Critics do seem to have become more vocal in recent years. Broadly speaking, there are two main areas of controversy. Firstly, the level (not enough, too much) and nature of content around classically divisive topics – race, gender, sexuality, politics, climate change, Covid response. We have always covered such issues and always will, even in an increasingly polarised world. Speaking as a Society member, I have been proud to see my Society attempt to define shared values, take a stand and achieve real policy impact.

Secondly, there’s the question of how much coverage we include on the running of the Society. As Professor Carol McGuinness said as interim Chair of the Board of Trustees, it has been ‘a very turbulent year’. Throughout that year, and my entire time as Editor, I have made decisions on what to report about the Society itself within the principles I’ve set out above. No information has been embargoed by management. I make these decisions, and readers have a clear route to the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee if they think I’ve got it wrong.

When that does happen, I try to learn and change. Challenge and criticism are to be expected and even welcome. But I will no longer engage – I can no longer engage – with false information and the targeting of individual, named staff in repeated abuse. There have to be boundaries for professional and constructive discourse. And I’ve been particularly shocked by accusations of playing the victim or weaponising mental health: perhaps it’s time for a discussion on how we talk about such areas, and my own feeling is that as psychologists we must do better.

What I think we can all agree on is that, as Professor McGuinness said, ‘the Society is at a crossroads’. I have been heartened to see a few members ask specifically ‘what can we do to help?’, and I can only echo Professor McGuinness’s request that we debate with courtesy and respect; give trustees and staff support; and stand for elected roles.

Dr Jon Sutton
Managing Editor
[email protected]

P.S. Comment is disabled on this post; I feel for very good reason given past experience. This is an opportunity to explain our position, rather than an invitation to debate. However, email addresses are there for both the Chair of PDEAC and myself, and any letters for publication will be considered in the usual way.

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