One hypothesis about the Anglo-Saxon world is that Britain 1.0 has been superseded by Britain 2.0, such that the latter gets updated first, and the former always lags behind, under threat of being discontinued. As a consequence, the US fashions in race relations have late echoes in the UK. Here are two little stories about two British institutions, one from the entertainment world, and one from a professional society.
The British Academy of Film and TV (BAFTA) gives awards each year, a British version of the Oscars. I declare a lack of interest. I admit that I visited their theatre in 1990 when Peter Greenaway was premiering “A TV Dante”, and in the lobby saw Sir John Gielgud, but did not feel it right to say that we had both been in the film together, given that the importance of our roles differed somewhat. I had known about Greenaway before he started film-making, and subsequently over a long lunch talked about making a film about him and his psychological motivations, which never progressed. In 2014 Greenaway got the Award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema, by which time he had made over 90 films, of which his 1982 “The Draughtman’s Contract” is probably the best known.
In April 2021 Noel Clarke, actor, screen writer and director won that same award, and then had it cancelled. It emerged that, after he had been nominated, BAFTA had received allegations of sexual misconduct, but said they did not act on them because they were third party accounts. After he had been given the award, The Guardian newspaper published 20 first-hand allegations, at which point his award was withdrawn by BAFTA. The serial in which he was the main actor, and which was just about to show the final episode, was also cancelled. This is a curious process, because no legal process has begun, let alone a trial. If suspicion is now judged enough to cancel an award, then those aspersions had already been cast before the award was given, and it could have been shelved until further enquiries had been made. Now the denunciations have been made about bullying and taking sexual advantage, and it is being described as something which was generally known in the business, and thus sufficient to be regarded as a closed case.
The presumption of innocence has gone by the board. Anyone accused of sexual misconduct and named in public is now a target for allegations, which may include a band-waggon effect, in which behaviours of marginal significance become toxic by agglomeration. If it ever comes to trial, we shall be able to judge, but at the moment Noel Clarke has been cancelled after sentence by allegation.
Now to an interesting matter: by what criteria do film makers get an award for outstanding contribution to cinema? I assume there is some yardstick. Looking back at former winners, most seem to have produced, directed or acted in many films, but not all reach the Greenaway standard. It is possible that a new requirement emerged this year.
At the 2nd February 2020 Award ceremony, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, chairman of Bafta bemoaned the lack of racial minorities. It “simply cannot be right in this day and age” that film awards have all-white shortlists.” Speaking at the Baftas, the Duke said it was unacceptable for voters to overlook black and ethnic minority talent.
The committee must have got the message, because the number of minority nominees in 2021 increased such that “The Bafta Film Awards have unveiled a highly diverse nominations list, with 16 of the 24 acting nominees this year coming from ethnic minority groups.” Noel Clarke was one of the 16. So, either there was much minority talent which formerly had been over-looked, or BAFTA suddenly went overboard to comply with the demand for diversity, and changed the nomination criteria.
I see no valid reason why the public should be concerned about the genetics of people such as directors and producers who make films. The public should be able look at whatever entertains them. I think the public is also capable of judging the acting talent of players, whatever their race. This year, they were nudged. I think that the entertainment world should have consistent standards, and I don’t see why minority race should be one of them.
Now to the professional society. The British Psychological Society was founded in 1901, and has 60,000 members. If any institution should be able to guard against unverified personal opinions and self-serving biases, this should be it. Every psychology undergraduate course contains cautionary examples showing how a personal perspective on events can be misleading, due to selective attention and fallible memory, hence the need for impeccable research methods.
In September the CEO of the society (odd, I know, that a learned society has a CEO, but this is a recent development) declared that the Society was institutionally racist. This came out of the blue, since a few months earlier he had said that he doubted that the society was racist. I wrote to him in September as a Fellow of the Society, asking on what basis he had made his remark. Perhaps in this “day and age” I need to explain that a condemnation of this magnitude of an entire professional society should be based on hard evidence. For example, that minority applicants are turned down for membership. For example, that minority members are turned down for appointments on committees. For example, that minorities are not employed by the society in administrative roles. For example, that clinical psychologists will not accept minority patients. For example, that the Society habitually refers to minorities in derogatory terms.
(I had already thought about the methods to be used to search for institutional racism. One would need to look back roughly 20 years to see how many people graduated with psychology degrees, from which universities, and the racial breakdown of those numbers, to establish the baselines for comparison, since society posts usually go to experienced people who are sufficiently secure in their mid or late careers to spend unpaid time on voluntary tasks).
So far, I have not received a reply, so the implication is that no such internal review was carried out. However, it turns out that the CEO is now on extended leave, and the deputy CEO is filling in for him, so I have asked that my inquiry be sent on to her. That was only recently, so something might come of it, albeit 8 months late.
It the mean time the Society has suddenly been in the news, for all the wrong reasons. Last month one former President of the Society resigned, saying he no longer wanted to be associated with the way it was conducting itself, and claiming poor governance. Another group have referred the Society to the Charity Commission, asking for it to be investigated, and that investigation is now under way. A paid member of the Society is under investigation for misuse of charitable funds. In a stunning development, the President Elect of the Society has been investigated by the Society for bullying (complaints from the university where he works, and also some from the society), and after two investigations not only stripped of his presidency, but also thrown out of the society. He says he was elected to campaign against the dreadful governance of the society, and was ejected on trumped up charges. An interim chairperson explained the ejection of the President Elect, though without details, and did so before the time period was up for him to appeal. The serving president of the Society had resigned earlier in the year, citing family reasons. The only available accounts are for 2019, and show rising costs, a £2 million overspend, and five salaried staff members with high salaries: one at up to $73,000, one at up to $111,000, one at up to $139,000, one up to $153,000 and one, presumably the CEO, at up to $167,000. A very senior clinical psychologist at the top of their National Health pay scale would get $120,000.
So, if I get an answer, it might be from the deputy CEO, probably salary up to $153,000. I find that she, like me, made a comment on the recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. You may recall that I went through that long document, commending the fact that it was based on evidence, and giving a detailed evaluation of its content, praising some aspects and criticizing others. I also did another post on the methodology of studying job applications which had been discussed by the Commission, so as to fill in the analysis I had done.
What did the British Psychological Society say, with resources far greater than mine, and with many learned Fellows to call upon?
Here is the statement:
The British Psychological Society has today responded to the findings of the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.
Diane Ashby, Deputy Chief Executive of the British Psychological Society, said:
“The findings of the report represent a missed opportunity to identify the causes of disparities in our society, systemic racism, and to drive forward the positive change the Government said it wishes to deliver.
We are particularly concerned that the re-traumatising of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people through a denial of their lived experience, will have an adverse psychological impact.
As stated previously we recognise that institutional racism exists and as an organisation we will tackle it.
We stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies in striving for anti-racist practice and are committed to tackling racism within our profession. We will not be complacent.”
Even at a glance, it is not clear why Asian minorities such as Indians who earn more than local whites would be traumatised by this report. Furthermore, the statement elevates “lived experience” to a higher level than the data the Commission presented, seemingly oblivious to the fact that everyone alive has lived experience, even statisticians, and that it is the distillation of lived experience which constitutes evidence, not individual anecdote.
One British Psychological Society report is quoted, dealing with Covid and racial minorities:
In my view that report gives a predominantly sociological account of the causes of health differences, ignoring other interpretations. A learned society should consider all options, including admitting that the answers are not yet known. For example, the report does not investigate whether there are racial differences in compliance with health advice, which has an impact on health outcomes.
In summary, a common feature of these two institutions is their acquiescence to the political demand that institutions must have a racial composition which is the same as the current racial composition of society, and that the outcomes for different racial groups must be the same, and if they are not, some form of malfeasance can be assumed to be responsible for those differences. For example, the current increase in the UK of the Indian variant of Covid is probably attributable to Indians returning from India just before flights from that country were banned. If one only measures cases by minority status then the infection rates will be higher for Indians, but not because of racism, simply because of the pandemic raging in India, from which they recently returned. (A hospital doctor tells me current Covid cases are mostly Indian). As previously discussed, institutions may not have the same racial composition as the general population owing to differences in interests or abilities, as well as differences in opportunities.
All the travails of the British Psychological Society are not due to racism, nor even due to the desperate wish to be seen to be against racism, but in declaring the society to be racist, and in replying to a government report with a political declaration rather than an analysis of the content, they have shown themselves to have fallen below the standards expected of a professional society.
Conclusions cannot be reached on the basis of accusation alone, but must be supported with evidence.
You may have your own view about actors and psychologists, seeing both as too unrealistic and left-inclined to be worthy of much attention. Perhaps so, but there is a larger point at stake. If British institutions cannot avoid political posturing and cannot concentrate on quality, then any respect accorded to them will evaporate.