Accountability

On 31st March, a week or so after the coronavirus pandemic lockdown began, I was contacted by the HCPC.

I am writing to inform you that we have received a concern about your fitness to practise” the letter began. “We will now carry out an initial investigation into the potential fitness to practise issues identified in the concern. This may involve gathering relevant information from a number of sources.
  
In order to assist with our enquiries, I would be grateful if you would provide the following information:
  
– Confirmation that you are the owner and/or moderator of the site ClinPsy.org.uk.
– Confirmation of whether you, or any of the other owners/moderator of the site have received any concerns/complaints about the content of the forum, particularly regarding [celebrity psychologists]
– If yes, please provide a copy of the complaint/s and the site’ s response.
– If not provided above, you are welcome to provide a brief response to concerns raised.
– Confirmation of your current employment arrangement.
– If applicable, please provide the name and email address of your line manager and HR director.

I replied the same evening:

I own www.clinpsy.org.uk I can confirm that I have never had any complaints in any form about any comment on [celebrity psychologists] on the forum – in fact I have never even heard of [the complainant], and can find no reference to him on the forum. I’m afraid you will need to let me know what comment is being complained about to enable me to respond to it.
As to my employment, I am self employed and run my own small business, so there is no line manager or HR involved – but I have to ask why you would think that relevant when a person is complaining about an unspecified comment on social media?

I then contacted my professional indemnity insurance provider and spoke to Mike Wang, chair of the ACP (he was my MSc supervisor and then my clinical course director, and we have stayed loosely in touch since then) who were both reassuring that this wasn’t a legitimate complaint. Later I got legal advice through my membership of the FSB, to check I had fully understood my legal obligations as a forum owner. All of us wondered why the HCPC would launch an investigation at all, given that I had never made a comment myself about any of the individuals named in the complaint, and the forum had been very proactive in ensuring no defamatory content was permitted. The forum does have a thread about “celebrity psychologists”, where legitimate concerns are raised about individuals who appear on television or in the newspapers making comment as “psychologists” who are outside of the scope of HCPC registration. But I could see nothing defamatory in it. In fact the moderating team had carefully checked the content and I had even posted a reply to remind people about our defamation policy and how to raise a concern. So I started to draft a full reply to the HCPC.

Just to be sure, I spent many hours obsessionally trawling through content on the forum and my social media and could find no interaction with the individual concerned, or any defamatory content about any celebrity psychologist on my forum. That isn’t to say members of the forum haven’t criticised such individuals, or that I don’t share similar concerns. Quite the opposite, I’ve been raising concerns about the limited scope of regulation for psychologists and therapy professionals for more than a decade and see this as another example of where the legislation fails to protect the public. However, I have never expressed this as a personal attack on an individual, or said anything unprofessional or defamatory.

At this juncture it might be helpful for me to note what defamation is, what a complainant can do about online defamation, and what the legal rights are both of the individual who believes they have been defamed, and the established defences against claims of defamation, as they will set this complaint in context.

Defamation is the action of damaging the good reputation of a person through the oral or written communication of a false statement about them that unjustly harms their reputation. The important part of that definition is that the statement must be false, and it must cause them harm (which must be demonstrable within 12 months of publication). Being rude about someone or insulting towards them would not normally be defamatory, though it might be unprofessional. As a website owner I am technically the publisher of the content shown on the site, and whilst I cannot be held legally accountable for other users being rude or insulting (though we have worked hard to create a professional culture and to have policies that prevent personal attacks or unprofessional behaviour), I would be accountable if something defamatory was published – if I was aware of it and failed to act to remove it when requested to do so by the individual it affected.

The problem here was that the HCPC did not share any details of the complaint with me, and the complaint communicated was entirely vague and did not refer to particular comments or even allege defamation. It was also made by a third party, rather than the individual that the complainant said had been maligned – making it rather extraordinary that the HCPC would give it even a cursory investigation.

But even with the assumption that someone had said something on the forum that an individual had felt was defamatory – which was far from the case – the law requires that individual (not a third party) to inform the publisher and ask them to remove the content, within 12 months from publication. And in this case most of the comments about celebrity psychologists had stood for 7 years, and no complaint had ever been raised with the forum – despite every post having a button to report it to moderators for review, and a prominent defamation policy that was linked by me in the very thread concerned, in a post giving the forum email address to make such a report.

There are also two main complete defences to defamation allegations; truth and honest opinion. If a statement is true it cannot be defamatory. For example, to say that a celebrity psychologist is not a registered practitioner psychologist or does not have a doctorate is not defamatory if these statements are factually correct. The other defence is that someone is expressing an honest opinion or making “fair comment”. This allows discussion of matters of public or professional interest, and means it is not defamatory to express a view that an honest person could have held on the basis of any facts or anything asserted to be a fact by reasonable sources available to them at the time. That is, if I said “Boris Johnson is a liar” this could not be defamatory because numerous sources have asserted this to be the case. Honest opinion can also be a reaction to something else that has been published, and can even defend someone posting something that is incorrect, if it was an honest belief based on the information available at the time (for example, writing “X isn’t registered with the HCPC” wouldn’t be defamatory if a person had their HCPC registration in a different name, or it didn’t show on the website yet, or the name checked was spelt incorrectly because that was the spelling used in the article under discussion).

As far as I could see, all comments that were on the forum about celebrity psychologists, or made or retweeted by me on social media, involved telling the truth or making fair comment about known or published facts.

On the other hand, my investigations showed me that the complainant was someone who frequently threatens properly registered mental health professionals who criticise his favoured celebrity psychologists with referral to the HCPC. I also found that the individual concerned had used anonymous IDs to respond aggressively to critics of his favoured celebrity psychologists, and to place more flattering quotes and reviews about them into the public domain. I also heard from other colleagues who had been harassed for raising similar concerns. One noted:

This is one of the perversities about the register and use of the title psychologist; as [celebrity psychologists] are not registered they are able to freely mislead the public about their status and not be held accountable and yet they can put in complaints to the HCPC about those of us that are properly qualified.  The complaint is vindictively motivated [and yet effective as a deterrent/punishment for critics]

So on 2nd April I sent the HCPC a robust reply:

I have had a better look into this and I am now in a position to reply more fully.

For reference, the forum has run for 13 years and contains 152,000 posts on over 15,000 topics. We have never had a formal complaint about our content, and we have a team of moderators who are all HCPC registered clinical psychologists who help to ensure we maintain a professional tone in all content. Every user has to agree a statement about the rules of the site to sign up (which can be read here: https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=16012) and we have written guidance for users that spells out our rules (which can be read here:https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=10). The guidance is sent to each user in a welcome message as they sign in for the first time and cautions against personal abuse or defamation. Rules 9 and 11 specifically talk about being respectful of others even when disagreeing, avoiding defamation and ensuring posts do not risk bringing the profession into disrepute. It also explains how any post can be reported to moderators by clicking the small triangle button and stating your concerns. We have a pinned post giving specific guidance about defamation (see here: https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=9&p=10) that is linked prominently from that guidance, and note it includes the means to contact us to report any content that is potentially defamatory at the bottom of the page: “If you believe a post has been defamatory about you, or an organisation you represent, please email us at clinpsyforum@gmail.com and we will respond as quickly as possible”. 

We have a proper process for responding to a complaint, and a team of qualified CPs who act as moderators that I consult with. However, our complaints process has only been activated once (when an approach to purchase the website turned into correspondence disputing our negative review of a travel agency offering work experience placements to psychology students, but they did not register a formal complaint and we did not find any content that was not factually supported when we investigated) and I can confirm that we have never had any complaint from any of the individuals mentioned in your email. We respond frequently to reports on individual posts, which mainly notify us of spam but can also highlight inappropriate content such as potential breaches of confidentiality. These are dealt with within 3 working days. We have never had a report in relation to defamation or to any content relevant to this complaint.

We do have one thread where [celebrity psychologists] are mentioned – you can read it here: https://www.clinpsy.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=13708. It was started in 2012 where forum members raised concerns about “celebrity psychologists” who do not have HCPC registration but appear to be giving the public the impression they are regulated professionals. The thread stood for 8 years and the majority of content was posted two or more years before I contributed to it at all. I did review the entire thread at that point and found nothing defamatory. Nonetheless my response includes the following: 

“The issue of psychological therapists who practise outside the scope of professional regulation is one that is important to many of our members who work hard to gain practitioner status with the HCPC, because we believe in the principle being important to protect the public (regardless of the individuals involved).

As with any other thread on the forum, if any of the content of this thread is considered defamatory the the individual involved is welcome to email the site (clinpsyforum@gmail.com) and point this out and we will remove it.” 

The thread was then dormant for nearly six years, before being raised to discuss the way some “celebrity psychologists” were using BPS membership to give the impression of professional qualifications, whilst apparently breaching BPS guidance. I had raised these concerns with the BPS and mentioned doing so on the forum and on twitter. However, as with the content in the thread, the concerns were about the misrepresentation of professional titles and skills, and the role the BPS take in giving credibility to psychologists who are not HCPC registered practitioner psychologists, and their lack of will to intervene or regulatory teeth when concerns are raised about these individuals. Whilst one or two of my posts are critical of specific things that [individual celebrity psychologists have] written or said I cannot see any defamatory content. I have made no direct criticism of [the individuals named in the complaint], and there has never been any mention of [the complainant] on that thread or elsewhere on the forum.

Nobody has raised a complaint about that thread. I have reviewed it today, and whilst there is legitimate concern about misrepresentation of qualifications and the public perception of psychologists, based on things written or said by various unregulated “psychologists” in the media, I cannot see anything defamatory in the content. [Far from being unprofessional, I believe we have gone above and beyond requirements to prevent defamatory or unprofessional content. I posted in that very thread] how to report any concerns about defamation, and have been mindful to allow only appropriate professional concerns about misrepresentation to be raised on the forum, rather than personal attacks or potentially defamatory content.

I do not believe that it can possibly impair my fitness to practice as a clinical psychologist to have hosted or participated in discussion about potential misrepresentation of professional qualifications by “celebrity psychologists”. This has not been defamatory, and I believe it to be legitimate for members of a clinical psychology forum to raise professional regulatory concerns about public figures – especially when these are factually based, shared by many practitioner psychologists and early career stage psychologists, and have been raised appropriately with professional bodies including the BACP and BPS. The posts on the forum that were critical of these individuals were based on the content of their newspaper columns and television appearances, how they are introduced in TV programs, and their stated qualifications and experience on their websites. For example, it is a true fact that Emma Kenny is not a clinical psychologist, despite being introduced in a BBC television series as being one, and this being a breach of the regulations that brought us under the auspices of the HCPC.

I would note that it is entirely lawful for individuals to publish honest opinions on a matter of public interest and based on facts which are true – this is known as “fair comment” or “honest opinion”, and has been tested through the courts by cases such as British Chiropractic Association vs Simon Singh, which led to the Defamation Act, 2013. This introduced a number of protections against allegations of defamation, including truth, honest opinion, public interest, and a defence for website operators hosting user-generated content, provided they comply with a procedure to enable the complainant to resolve disputes directly with the author of the material concerned or otherwise remove it. This ensures that individuals who own or run websites that allow comment are not liable for the content of other user’s comments on it. It requires that the complainant must contact the site owner or administrator to raise a complaint in which they specify the complainant’s name, the statement concerned, where on the website it was posted and explain why it is defamatory, before taking any other action in relation to alleged defamation. These complaints can only be made by the person who has allegedly been defamed or their legal representative.

We have never received any complaint or notification of potential defamation, or any communication from [celebrity psychologists] or their legal representatives, and as previously stated we have never mentioned, heard of or communicated with [the complainant]. Thus a non-specific complaint to the HCPC made by an individual who has never been mentioned on the site seems quite inappropriate as a means to address concerns. I would therefore hope that the complaint can be quickly dismissed.

Yet the case still wasn’t dismissed, despite the fact I had demonstrated that a) I had not made any defamatory comments about the individuals concerned and b) there was no legal basis to hold me accountable for posts made by others on a forum that I own (even had any been defamatory, when none of them had been).

I was then asked on 6th April to provide proof that no complaints had been made to the website. Aside from the fact that it is not my burden to prove a negative, and almost an impossible task, I spent the next 3 hours responding to this request, searching the email correspondence, administrator and moderator report logs for each name or the word complaint, and submitted screen shots of every search. These were acknowledged on the following day.

Yet the case still wasn’t dismissed.

I then heard nothing for 4 months. So I wrote on 12th August to ask whether the complaint had been dismissed. This email was acknowledged, and I was told I would receive a reply within 5 working days, but received no reply. I therefore emailed again on 20th August, which again had no reply. So on 26th August I raised a complaint.


My complaint was that this “fitness to practise concern” was obviously spurious from the start, and should never have reached the point of even a cursory investigation (given the complaint was from a person I had never interacted with, about comments made by people other than me about people other than him). But even if it did, in error, reach a cursory investigation, surely the information I provided within 3 days was enough to say “sorry, it is now clear this isn’t a legitimate complaint” and not keep me under the stress of a formal fitness to practise investigation? How this can still be hanging over my head five months later is very troubling. Surely there must be a process for checking the prima facie validity of complaints, that should have dismissed this? What if I had been employed, and this had led to me being suspended or fired? How you could do this to a person struggling to sustain their business through a pandemic lockdown over such a trivial and spurious complaint is beyond me.

On 4th September the investigation was officially closed. The HCPC informed me:


I am writing to let you let you know that we have now completed our initial investigation into the concerns we received about your fitness to practise.

During our investigation, we obtained information from the Complainant and yourself. We have now assessed the concern, and all the information we received, against our threshold criteria for fitness to practise investigations.

In doing so, we have considered whether this matter may be a breach of the following HCPC Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics:
2. Communicate appropriately and effectively
6. Manage risk

The outcome of our assessment is that the threshold criteria for fitness to practise investigations has not been met in this instance. This means that we do not consider that the concern, or the information we have obtained about it, amounts to an allegation that your fitness to practise may be impaired.

The reasons for our decision are explained in more detail below:

Issue 1 – comments of an offensive, bullying or inappropriate nature on social media

Registrants are not prohibited from expressing their opinions on social media, provided the content or language used is not inappropriate or offensive.

HCPC Guidance on Social Media advises Registrants: ‘ When using social media you should apply the same standards as you would when communicating in other ways. Be polite and respectful, and avoid using language that others might reasonably consider to be inappropriate or offensive. Use your professional judgement in deciding whether to post or share something.’

From the links and screenshots provided, the content of the forum appears to be confined to a discussion of professional concerns and information already in the public domain. Regarding the opinions and concerns expressed in the forum, the HCPC would be out of place to prohibit its Registrants from having a free discussion about their concerns or limit their ability to express their opinions. Of the information provided and the search conducted, I am unable to find any statements which amount to ‘trolling’  or bullying.

As our process is evidence based, we cannot proceed with our investigation without evidence to support the concerns. The Complainant was given multiple opportunities to provide evidence that you contributed to and offensive or inappropriate content, but has failed to provide information which supports the concerns.

Issue 2 – hosting comments by others of an offensive, bullying or inappropriate nature on your site

You have provided evidence that you have put multiple protections in place to ensure the tone, language and content of the forum is not defamatory and does not stray into inappropriate content or language. Where members breach these terms, you have a team of moderators who will respond.

In providing individuals the ability to report specific posts and comments, you have acted in accordance with your professional duty to support and encourage others to report concerns(SCPE 7.2). You have evidenced that you have not received complaints on this thread, and therefore have not been in a position to respond to such concerns.

In the absence of any evidence to suggest you have not complied with the relevant obligations, there is no information to suggest that your fitness to practise may be impaired.

We will therefore not be taking any further action in relation to this matter and have closed our file on this case. However, please continue to be aware of our communication guidance when reviewing your forum/website.

We appreciate that this has been a very stressful time for you and would like to thank you for your co-operation and patience during our investigation.


So, to my relief, they got there in the end and the complaint has been dismissed. However, my question is why the complaint got through the starting gates, and why it took 5 months, 2 emails and a formal complaint to resolve.

But more than this, why do the BPS continue to endorse these “celebrity psychologists” and do nothing to protect or support genuine practitioner psychologists against this kind of attack? Despite numerous complaints about “celebrity psychologist” Jo Hemmings in the context of her article about Meghan Markle being manipulative, the BPS sat her down for a chat and took her at her word that she would be more careful in future. And they’ve not replied to any of my emails in the six months since I suspended my membership, saying I would not continue membership until they responded to the concerns I raised about their endorsements not protecting the public.

And more than this, why does the legislation not distinguish genuinely qualified and accountable professional psychologists within the scope of regulation from anyone who calls themselves a psychologist? In Australia it is an offence with enormous financial penalties to misrepresent someone as a psychologist or claim to be a psychologist if not within the scope of statutory regulation. So the public cannot be misled by the media citing quacks or charlatans who claim qualifications, but actually have to check their registration before using them as experts. Here we haven’t even got that protection for who can be called as an expert witness to inform critical decisions in the courts. The scope of current regulation fails to protect the public, yet nobody – not professional bodies or politicians – seems to care.

The tip of the iceberg

Harvey Weinstein is the tip of the iceberg, and whilst men might be shocked about the numerous allegations and the audio recording of him persistently not taking no for an answer when inviting a woman he had sexually assaulted into his hotel room, most women I know are not. Far from it. We’ve all been there and heard that. We find it familiar. Men are socialised to believe that they need to be persistent and wear women down, rather than backing off when she expresses reluctance. There is also so much social shaming of women’s sexuality that people assume the gender norm is for women to play coy and men to have to overcome their defences.

The Daily Mail coverage* implies that any woman who talked to Weinstein, worked for him, or was pulled in for a photograph is complicit in his abuse. I think they are looking for blame in the wrong place. Whether intentionally or unconsciously, they seem to feel the need to misdirect blame as they are complicit in the objectification of women and the idealisation of powerful men regardless of their exploitative behaviour. What about looking at first and foremost at the man who is assaulting and raping women, then at  the staff who set up and cover up such actions for him, the PR and legal team who defend it, and the board who turn a blind eye to it and then finally at the social norms that allowed him (and so many men with power) to do these appalling things over and over again so for so long?

The Daily Mail coverage, and many other articles (and numerous men in the comments sections), imply it is the responsibility of the female victims to speak up, when they are the very people whose vulnerability and lack of power was exploited, and who then carry shame and traumatic memories that they have to overcome to maintain their ability to work and operate in an environment where Weinstein and men like him have all the power. That’s a really difficult ask. Women who speak up about sexual assault are dirtied by association, accused of being liars, have their sexual history raked over, and are then blamed for not fighting back, not speaking up earlier, giving mixed messages, continuing to interact with the person. There is no winning. And they have to revisit traumatic memories and tell shaming and highly personal stories that expose their vulnerability to their colleagues, friends and the general public. Anyone who speaks up is exceptionally brave. Anyone who chooses to stay silent is still not culpable for the actions of their abuser.

There is also this narrative that concerns should have been reported to the police, and that only a conviction shows an allegation is true and all else could have a multiplicity of motivations from revenge to extortion. The problem is that few examples of harassment or sexual assault have witnesses and clear cut evidence, and this narrative acts as if suspicions and personal experiences without witnesses are enough to build a case and achieve something purposeful for the victim. Sadly, in my experience, without biological/medical evidence they are not. The examples that were reported to HR departments and the police led to no prosecutions and were never compiled. Even Bill Cosby with 50 allegations has only had one reach criminal charges and that reached a hung jury. Savile had allegations and rumours, and some reports to police and the BBC, yet nothing happened until after his death. The Fox CEO and lead newscaster were only dismissed after multiple allegations and have faced no criminal charges (and in fact got a $40 million parachute in the former case and continued to be endorsed by Fox despite multiple allegations in the latter). I hope things are changing for the better, and clustering of multiple independent allegations can be used as evidence in cases like this, but that has not been the case to date.

The saddest figures are the way that sexual crimes do not reach convictions by comparison to other forms of crime. I’ve read estimates that 90% of rapes, sexual assault and child sexual abuse go unreported to authorities, and that 90% of those reported do not reach prosecution, and that less than half of those prosecuted lead to a conviction. That means that 99% of perpetrators don’t get convicted – and there is bias in which ones do, as richer, more powerful and more intelligent perpetrators are much harder to convict than those facing the disadvantages of poverty, mental health problems and learning disability, who are more likely to leave evidence or confess and don’t have the deep pockets for an expert legal team to defend them.

I think the most telling detail of all in this story, is the terms of Harvey’s contract with the weinstein corporation, which cannot fire him for sexual misconduct provided he pays any compensation to victims himself to keep any costs away from the company. I mean imagine having lawyers write that in, and the board accept those terms of business. To me that suggests he knew he was a serial abuser, and so did everyone else in the company. I like this little snippet from the onion: How Could Harvey Weinstein Get Away With This?’ Asks Man Currently Ignoring Sexual Misconduct Of 17 Separate Coworkers, Friends, Acquaintances. I think it speaks to how common harassment and sexual impropriety is, how it has been normalised as something men do if powerful enough to have the opportunity, and how we are socialised to turn a blind eye to it.

I blogged a year or more ago about rape culture and my own experiences of feeling at risk of being raped. What I maybe didn’t say explicitly is that from personal experience, even without the acute trauma of a violent incident or serious assault, it is incredibly hard to speak up, and incredibly hard to get anyone to take you seriously when you do. You feel responsible for being a victim, confused, ambivalent and shamed about what happened – and, importantly, you often don’t recognise it as assault, abuse or harassment unless it is a violent or traumatic event because it has been so normalised.

Writing this I remembered another example that has stuck with me from the same era of my life. I was sixteen and in an A-level physics lesson, watching a demonstration at the front, when, masked from view by the people sitting in front of us, a boy from my class put his hand on my breast. I was shocked (although not frightened or distressed), but I interpreted it as a flirtation rather than an assault, and felt like he’d have just claimed it was accidental and I was making a fuss about nothing if I said anything. There was no implicit threat, but there was no negotiation or opportunity to decline either. I was already the only girl in the class, and I wanted to belong and be “one of the lads”. It felt like it would have been prudish to complain about something so trivial, and overreacting to interrupt the lesson to make him stop. Saying even a whispered “stop it” would have caused everyone in the class turn around and stare at me, and would have made a big scene about something small. So I said nothing. And he took my silence as compliance and did it again the next week. He waited until I was seated and stood behind me. He put his hand into my top that time. It turns out it gets harder to speak up once you haven’t the first time. So he kept doing it in every demonstration he could for the rest of the course. He was in a band with friends of mine, and I never said anything to them about it either. I didn’t tell a teacher or even consider reporting him to the police, because it felt confusing and happened in public and therefore didn’t match up with my internalised template of a sexual assault (which would have involved threat or coercion, and probably a stranger rather than a peer). Plus I’d been socialised to think of that kind of attention as flattering, and his actions as a form of flirting and something I should laugh off if unwanted.

At the end of sixth form he and his friends were presenting silly awards at the leavers prom. They awarded me “a pair of jugs for the biggest and best female contribution to science” on stage in front of all my peers. I understood the innuendo, smiled and took the award with good humour, posing for a photo when prompted to do so, with the two measuring jugs held at chest height. Having breasts and doing science meant I was a legitimate target for sexual humour, and not a single teacher or pupil checked in with me afterwards or spoke up to suggest otherwise. I didn’t even think of it being normalised sexism or publicly acceptable harassment. That wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time. It was as acceptable a source of humour as giving baby bottles full of beer to the “underachievers” bound for Oxbridge. I don’t look back on it as traumatic, but I’d be horrified if the same thing happened to my daughters now, because I’d place it in a different context.

I didn’t speak up about the guy who plied me with alcohol and repeatedly undressed me down at the docks either. I didn’t think he had committed a crime. I think in my teenage mind his behaviour was not that different to my other experiences of persistent sexual approaches, except that I had made myself more vulnerable by being intoxicated and in a private location with him. I was acutely aware that I had kissed him in front of other people, that I hadn’t said no explicitly, and that it would be my word against his. That belief was then socially reinforced – I told several mutual friends what had happened, and the group response was to make us shake hands and pretend to get along. A year or two later he unexpectedly stuck my hand on his erection at a party, and I didn’t bother saying anything to anyone then either. Somehow that didn’t fit the box for sexual assault in my head either.

I suspect that to my friends and family, my lack of action about these events will seem incongruous with my adult personality. I’m quite a confident person, who has strong opinions and would normally speak up about issues. But as a teenager, and in context, I didn’t know that was an option, didn’t see it in the same way, and wasn’t able to. I felt I had to continue to allow young men who had been sexually inappropriate to me to be part of my social circle. If I had been an aspiring actress who was auditioning for a role that might kickstart my career, and when I was sexually assaulted it had been by a powerful industry kingmaker of a man with the capacity and reputation to shame me to the media or sabotage my career I can only begin to imagine how powerful the forces at play would have felt. I grew up in a progressive culture, and have the benefits of many aspects of privilege, intelligence and social support. Yet looking back I am shocked at how vulnerable I was, and how normative that is. Men are given the implicit social message that sexual dominion is the reward for status, and that women will show token resistance that they should overcome. Women, on the other hand, are implicitly trained to expect sexual advances, to see them as flattering and to look for a socially acceptable way out. We are taught not to offend men, to be polite when rejecting advances, not to “lead men on” by allowing them to develop expectations we later decline. We are taught to feel responsible for male sexual behaviour towards us, and guilty when we did not anticipate risks. The power balance is stacked in favour of the perpetrator and against the vulnerable and those lower down the hierarchy – and this is multiplied when women and girls have experienced past abuse or assaults, especially if they have been powerless to resist, or been shamed and/or disbelieved when they disclosed.

Sadly, society is full of powerful men who exploit women, and other people who normalise this, turn a blind eye to it, play along with or facilitate the behaviour, or continue to suck up to them for personal gain regardless of what they do to others. It is a serious social problem, and the fact that a serial sexual assaulter and overt misogynist was elected president of the USA says it all really. I am just glad that people are starting to speak out more against institutional abuse, and that perpetrated by people in power. At least with Weinstein the consequences are substantial: he has been fired, kicked out of BAFTA, his CBE is likely to be withdrawn, his wife has left him, and he has been roundly condemned by industry colleagues and public figures. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have kicked him out stating:

We do so not simply to separate ourselves from someone who does not merit the respect of his colleagues but also to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over. What’s at issue here is a deeply troubling problem that has no place in our society. The board continues to work to establish ethical standards of conduct that all Academy members will be expected to exemplify.

That statement is so much better than talk of Weinstein as a “sad, sick man” entering rehab as if the cause of his bad choices was some kind of irresistible medical condition. There are other appropriate outcomes too: Police in the UK and USA are investigating rape and sexual assault allegations, and this story has allowed other victims to speak up about other actors, directors, managers and powerful men in many industries. The #metoo hashtag has shown how endemic the problems are. There are encouraging signs that victims are being believed, perpetrators are facing justice or social stigma, and cultural norms are being challenged. I hope that this momentum continues enough to make meaningful change.

And whilst I’m on my soapbox, I must mention the Twitter statement after they suspended Rose McGowan in the wake of her calling out Ben Affleck for denying knowledge of Weinstein’s pattern of sexually exploiting/assaulting women. They said

“Twitter is proud to empower and support the voices on our platform, especially those that speak truth to power. We stand with the brave women and men who use Twitter to share their stories, and will work hard every day to improve our processes to protect those voices”.

What utter drivel. Twitter have consistently failed to act on reports of harassment and have been the tool of choice employed to hound and threaten so many women. They empower hate mobs more often than providing a platform for those speaking truth to power.

Regulating and providing consequences for the content on social media according to the laws that apply to other forms of communication is a step that is desperately overdue. Publishers who profit from users on their platforms should be accountable for their response to inappropriate content that is reported. To motivate this I believe that users who are the victims of campaigns of antagonism, threats or unwanted sexual content should be enabled to seek financial redress where the platforms do not respond sufficiently to prevent such harassment.

*this is an indirect link to an image of the DM coverage, so as not to provide traffic for their horrendous clickbait content

Sherlock jumped the shark

Warning: Contains plot spoilers for series 3 (and for August Rush)

I think Benedict Cumberbatch and Matin Freeman are great actors, and the BBC have made a very stylish production of Sherlock with complex and nuanced characters. Both Sherlock’s use of drugs and the relationship between the two men has been portrayed in an interesting and convincing way. I particularly enjoyed the hint of Asperger’s in the way that Sherlock can use his visual observation skills and visual memory to reason in a way that seems almost impossible to a layperson, whilst struggling with interpersonal relationships. So it was with high expectations that I watched the latest set of episodes, and found them sorely disappointing.

I should say that it isn’t the first time I’ve built up my expectations of a film or show only for the reality to not live up to them. I have long identified a pattern I call “the Total Recall effect” whereby films seem to vary in their quality according to my expectations. The first time I watched Total Recall (the 1990 original, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) I thought it sounded like a weak premise with a wooden actor, but was pleasantly surprised. The second time I watched it, some years later, I remembered it as a good film and was sorely disappointed. The third time I watched it, after several more years,  I nearly turned it off, remembering it to be dire. However, it wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed it enough to stick with it until the end. I learnt that my expectations influenced my subjective experience; hence naming the Total Recall effect.

I also hate films that mix realism with implausibility. I’m fine with suspending belief entirely for a fantastical tale, or for enjoying the interplay of characters in a different time or place (eg I love Firefly’s futuristic western set in space) but I hate it when stories that are designed to seem within a stretch of reality suddenly take a leap into the impossible. In the film August Rush, for example, I had that experience of a semi-plausible plot jumping the shark. It was a stretch I could just about tolerate for the boy to reject family placements and stay in the care system in the hope of finding his real parents, and to then run away in search of them (despite the fact he’d have been adopted as an infant, would never have known anything but the love and belonging of his adoptive family, and wouldn’t have felt quite the same yearning). His relationship with music was beautifully captured and was the highlight of the film. But the grand finale where everything fell into place, and his parents were both seeking him and each other, and were present in the right place at the right time to hear the concert and recognised it calling to them, then recognised each other and him, made it all fall apart.

That accounts for some aspects of my disappointment with Sherlock but not all. To be honest, whilst I applaud the idea of also including female characters and narrative as a general aspiration for all media, I wasn’t a fan of Watson’s wife being an international espionage expert (it felt a bit like the second series of Heroes, where everyone got superpowers). Likewise I didn’t buy Sherlock having a sister. They felt like a step away from the source material that wasn’t in keeping with the rest. I also found it frustrating that each episode spent three quarters of its time laying out a riddle, and then wrapped it up far too quickly and neatly in the final quarter. I also felt cheated that unlike earlier shows, we didn’t see how Sherlock put together the clues to reach his conclusion. It was presented in an abstract way, a bit like magic. Viewers were left to assume that the song combined with some numbers in the graveyard could be rearranged to lead to a sentence that unlocked the location of the well. But why those graves, and how did it unlock the location – we were short-changed in the explanation.

As ever, huge amounts of trauma were included in the plot, without an appropriate scale of emotional response. The repeated prompts to be soldiers wasn’t sufficient to carry the uneven emotional responses (smashing the coffin because he had upset the pathologist, whilst being unmoved by four murders and recovering from feeling responsible for a suicide in less than a minute). Likewise later scenes showed the repair of 221b Baker Street to its former state, indicating that the explosion that would have supposedly killed Mrs Hudson in the flat below, and threw them out of the windows in bursts of flame had not only caused them no injuries, but hadn’t even penetrated the floor boards of the flat.

However, my main grumble was with the character of Eurus and the plot that surrounded her. The actress playing her was good, and the twist of her being several characters was fun, but the story and back story they gave her was appalling. This woman was supposed to have been born a dangerous psychopath, and to have spent her entire life from the age of around seven in solitary confinement as a result. She was supposed to be lonely, anxious and delusional but to express that by doing nothing for two decades and then engineering plots that skipped continents and killed multiple people without emotional response. Well I call bingo on the theme of propagating negative myths about mental health, with zero points for reality.

First, it reinforced the association between mental health problems and risk of committing crime, when people with mental health problems are much more likely to be the victims of crime. Second, it gave the impression that mental health problems are things that you can be born with, and unrelated to your life experience. For example, we didn’t see that Eurus had been emotionally and sexually abused to create her distress and anger. We saw a highly intelligent child in a highly intelligent family that felt a little left out when her brother had a friend, and as a result decided to kill the friend, then burn the house down, and wanted to kill her brother. She was portrayed as a petty and jealous child, whilst presumably nobody in this highly intelligent family was able to show her affection or to help her regulate her emotions. And nobody recognised the risk or tried to intervene in a supportive way.

Eurus was supposedly unable to tell the difference between laughing and screaming, and was portrayed as being entirely without empathy, yet she had the subtle social insight to see (from her minimal observations whilst supposedly secured in a prison island) that her brother was unable to communicate any affection for the woman who was in love with him. Then, despite the lack of normal human interaction for most of her life it transpired that she had developed sufficient mind control to reprogram others within minutes of conversation. She had never done so as a practise, or in a way that was unsuccessful or aroused concern, however. But after 20 years she had suddenly taken over the entire prison/asylum island sufficiently to get people all over the place to transport her to and from the island, to set up her murder scenarios, to dangle three men in front of the window and cut the ropes to make them fall off the cliff to their deaths. No single person in the entire staff of the island failed to fall under her thrall, or had any moral doubts about her plans that were sufficient to breach her conditioning enough to raise an alarm (whilst the prison governor was able to disobey her to commit suicide in his attempt to save his wife). And she was able to set explosives, procure sedative darts and transport Holmes and Watson to an entire set created at her old family home. And this frightened, lonely girl who had supposedly only killed a child once in a failed attempt to play was suddenly killing many as experiments to test her brothers.

Sherlock, despite his intellect and his “mind palace” of perfect visual memories, was supposed to have entirely erased the existence of his best friend being murdered by his sister, or even of having a sister at all. When he spent the evening with the daughter of the famous serial killer, he could notice the drips of water and the line on her dress from her exit from the taxi, but not the fact that she was his own sister in disguise, putting on a false accent. Likewise he could predict that Watson would be at a particular location in two weeks time, but not see anything suspect in his flirtation with the woman on the bus. Meanwhile, despite the whole of MI6 and the intellect of Mycroft being involved in her supervision, Eurus could come and go from her prison island enough to make a therapy practise that both Watson and Holmes thought to be bona fide. And in the finale, Sherlock could believe that the voice of an adult woman he had been interacting with, communicated from an attic in the rain or a prison island, was that of a small girl in a crashing aeroplane.

In short, once you apply any critical thought, this series was a woeful disappointment, despite the stellar cast, impressive budget and stylish delivery.

 

Happily ever after: Some thoughts on trauma in the movies

I watched a romantic drama this evening in which a man and a woman who has a child from her past relationship fall in love. The ex-boyfriend is controlling, threatening and manipulative and tries to sabotage the relationship. He is shown getting drunk and grabbing the woman’s arm tightly to stop her leaving twice, and at another point he threatens the man with a weapon. Towards the end of the film the ex-boyfriend is drunk and upset. He threatens to take the child, who runs away and falls into a river. The ex-boyfriend rescues the child at the cost of his own life, and the mother and child witness him meeting a sudden grizzly death. Then the couple get together, become a family with the child and the film ends, leaving them to live happily ever after.

Having watched a set of characters for an hour and a half that were portrayed sympathetically and realistically enough to feel invested in, this seemed like a weird ending. I was left with this really disconcerting feeling that the writers, producers and large numbers of reviewers of this film (who gave it respectable scores on Amazon and IMDB) thought that this climactic scene tied up the ends neatly and left us with the uplifting moral righteousness of the baddie getting his just deserts, the couple unimpeded in their romance and a perfect nuclear family.

But how could a child who just witnessed his father’s death (and probably felt responsible for it) not have any emotional reaction to that? Would it not be yet another loss of a close male relationship for this young child, who had already lost others as part of the back-story? How could the mother not have complex feelings about the death of a guy who has been emotionally and potentially physically abusing her for five years? Would her relief perhaps be tinged with guilt that her new romance triggered these events, or at being relieved to see the back of him? Would a mother not feel sadness in empathy for her child’s experience of trauma and loss? Would she not feel echoes of the loss of her own father in childhood, or her brother the previous year? Perhaps their different ways of dealing with grief and loss would challenge the romantic relationship? How about our leading man, who was mourning lost friends and showing signs of PTSD at the beginning of the film. Would it not re-awaken all the unresolved grief he is repressing? And what of the ex-boyfriend’s parents and their stoical thanks to those that tried to rescue him? Does nobody cry for this man, who gave his life up to save his child? Was his inept handling of the relationship that resulted from an unplanned pregnancy in his teens so bad that he deserved to die?

Why couldn’t the film have been one that illustrated the reality and complexity of modern family relationships? Surely the alternative was for the father to have shown his priority was the wellbeing of the child, during the rescue scene, but to have survived and been part of a renegotiated family configuration in which the child was able to have both a positive experience of contact with him and to live in the new family unit with Mum and step-Dad? As I often tell children who feel that any affection to foster or adoptive carers is disloyal to their birth family, love is not like a cake where you have a finite amount to share out between all your relationships, love is like candles where using your fire to light others just creates more brightness for everyone. But if the father had to die, then they needed to show the emotional fallout of that. They can’t have one without the other, any more than they could show a person standing in sunshine without showing their shadow.

As it stood, the film profoundly failed to acknowledge the impact of trauma on the different characters. And this film was far from alone in that. So many traumas occur in films and TV shows that it seems they are very much part of the expectation nowadays. In every vampire franchise I’ve seen the head counts of characters close to the main protagonists who die are extraordinary, and yet they briefly mourn and then move on. In Vampire Diaries, an average of 19 characters shown on screen die per episode, and the main character, Elena, has lost almost every living relative and most of her friends, as well as dying herself, twice! Many other shows track medical emergencies, murderers, serious crimes, drug dealing and power battles, yet they are dealt with in an entirely sanitised, emotion-free way. Sure, a pathologist would be well-used to the physical nature of human corpses, but even in the most hardened professionals some cases creep through the cracks into your psyche. The person that looks a little like someone you know, or reminds you of something in your past. The tragic story that becomes apparent from the cause of death, or the untimely demise of a child. We are not robots analysing data, surely we recognise that people are like us and the people we care about?

The latest Star Wars film showed planet-scale genocide without that even being acknowledged by the cast. It’s a really good film otherwise, and I really enjoyed it, but the scriptwriters chose to show genocide as shorthand to make the baddies bad. It could equally have done so through less wide-scale slaughter, or by showing the snatching of children to indoctrinate as stormtroopers or many other plot devices. Including the slaughter of millions of people was a plot choice, and given that the film is part of a historical franchise that is pitched to the whole family and used to market toys to children, that is a pretty weird choice of plot. To then skim over making light of it makes that more disturbing, rather than less, once you think about it. I’m not saying the main characters should have processed the emotional impact there and then; I’m sure if you are busy fighting for your life or have 20 minutes to save the world and see some planets blow up, that isn’t the moment you down tools, lie down and cry. But even an extra second of footage showing sad faces, one person humanising the loss by mention of having lost individuals there, or an additional comment about how awful that loss was, would have given some hint of the emotional connections of all the people whose lives were extinguished in an instant. In the original trilogy when Alderaan was destroyed they used the change in the force to acknowledge how monstrous it was. I still remember the scale and momentousness given by the line “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.” And this is what was missing in The Force Awakens.

But I think this lack of acknowledgement of millions of deaths was also illustrating something very poignant about human processing of events; we identify much more emotionally with death or distress at the individual scale than we do at a population level. Think of how the discovery of the body of young Aylan Kurdi humanised the treatment of Syrian refugees in the news narratives, for example. Prior to that point, they were treated like an invading army of ants, but in the weeks immediately afterwards some individual stories were told and people felt more sympathetic and we were shown footage of refugees being welcomed into various European countries. I think that change in response according to the scale of deaths is part of human nature, as is our ability to shut off from suffering and get on with life, if that is necessary to our survival. At the extreme end, people living through wars or in areas of high risk or conflict are probably coping by living in “survival mode” and using more primitive parts of the brain in favour of the prefrontal cortex, which has reduced activity under threat. It makes sense, logically, as we do have to compartmentalise awful stuff to just keep on going sometimes. I think back to all the life events that happened whilst I was pregnant (including a car accident, my granddad dying, a close colleague dying unexpectedly, my job being placed at risk, my babies being born very prematurely) and think I only coped with everything I couldn’t avoid by going into a psychological bubble and putting all that bad news aside to deal with later.

Maybe these fictional narratives of unacknowledged loss that have become so prevalent in TV and film are using this tendency – our ability to put emotional distance between ourselves and tragedy through various forms of displacement. If something awful happens far away, or it happened in the past, or in a different cultural context, or in fiction, then we are able to distance ourselves from it and deal with it at a purely cognitive level. We think about it but don’t feel it. The shame is that this seems to be how many politicians and decision makers deal with the problems affecting people in our day to day lives. Although it is ‘psychologically expensive’ to allow emotions in, it is only with empathy that we can really make informed decisions. So in real life as well as in fiction, I think a bit more feeling would be a good thing.