How the Post Office scandal avoided media attention for so long
Why did it take so long for mainstream media to pick up the Post Office scandal?
Now that the official inquiry into the great Post Office scandal, one of the most extensive miscarriages of justice in modern times, has opened, the endgame has finally been reached.
The Daily Mail splashed on the story adding the tragic revelation that at least 33 falsely accused post-masters had died before they were able to clear their names. The paper followed up inside with a two-page spread including a piece naming “the bosses who pocketed millions.”
Between 2000 and 2015, no less than 3,500 sub-postmasters were accused of stealing from their businesses when the true culprit was the faulty Horizon computer system developed by Fujitsu for the Post Office.
In opening the inquiry chairman Sir Wyn Williams spoke of the “grim punishments” suffered and how lives were ruined and families torn apart.
The inquiry opening made the television news bulletins, a third edition of Panorama on the subject is planned and ITV is at work on a drama likely to be broadcast next year.
The Mail splashed with the story partly because it has been campaigning on the story in recent years. Yet amid headlines over the Ukraine crisis, The Times relegated the story to the bottom of page 10 (although the paper devoted a leader to the issue).
It argued that the inquiry should be as relentless in its determination to name those culpable for the scandal as the Post Office was to ruin the lives of men and women who had faithfully served it up and down the country.
Meanwhile The Sun, which splashed on a brawl on whether England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has short “T-Rex arms” or not, but didn’t find room for a single word on the start of the inquiry.
What took so long to get here?
There is now real hope that finally justice will eventually be done and at least proper financial compensation will be paid – something that could cost the Post Office and the Government more than £1bn.
Even more important there is a good chance that those responsible in the Post Office, Fujitsu and government will finally be found publicly culpable, and some may face criminal prosecutions.
There remains however one abiding mystery. Why did such a widespread scandal affecting several thousand people and happening in plain sight take so long to kick through into the national media?
Sub-postmaster Alan Bates had reported problems with the Horizon system in 2000 and was dismissed for his trouble.
He alerted Computer Weekly in 2004 but it was not until 2009 that the paper was confident enough to publish, the same year as Bates, and others, formed the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance.
A year later Nick Wallis, then presenting the breakfast show for BBC Radio Surrey, received a message from a local taxi driver looking for a contract. No contract, but Wallis almost routinely asked: had he any stories.
The taxi driver told how his wife Seema Misra had been thrown into prison on her son’s 10th birthday for supposedly stealing £74,000 from the Post Office. This week Misra called for those who covered up the scandal to be thrown in jail as she was in November 2010.
When he was first told about Misra, Wallis was up and running on what turned out to be a journalistic odyssey that has lasted to this day.
He did pieces for the BBC, alerted Private Eye, which has been covering the story since 2011. He has also been involved with Panorama and made a series for Radio 4.
But apart from the Eye and Computer Weekly, the story failed to receive anything like the sustained attention it should have done from the mainstream media and certainly no big national newspaper campaigns.
In a detailed interview in the current issue of InPublishing magazine, Wallis explains how he believes many factors were responsible. Bates was a great campaigner but didn’t like doing interviews and from 2013 to 2019 the Post Office was in “batshit denial” and sent legal letters warning off journalists looking at the story.
It didn’t help that no convictions had been overturned or that many had been persuaded to plead guilty, while others had made up the deficits with their own money.
Wallis hoped to publish a book on the scandal, but for whatever reason, probably the degree of legal risk, publishers ran a mile.
When he had been covering the story on and off for more than eight years Wallis got the private email address of then Daily Mail editor Geordie Greig and got in touch about the scandal.
Greig replied that the local sub-postmaster in the village where he had a weekend cottage had already been bending his ear about the story.
The Mail’s chief reporter Sam Greenhill was unleashed and the paper launched a campaign one of the things the Daily Mail does very well – when it manages to pick appropriate targets.
The real breakthrough came in 2019 when Bates and 554 fellow litigants took a civil case against the Post Office to the High Court “and the chickens started coming home to roost.”
A few weeks ago, in good time for the opening of the inquiry, a small Bath publisher brought out The Great Post Office Scandal by Nick Wallis.
Obviously the combined ranks of the wider media, from Computer Weekly and Private Eye to the Daily Mail, with Wallis plugging away throughout, together played a significant role in bringing the matter towards a hoped for ultimate redemption.
Yet a widespread injustice festered for more than 15 years, a long time, given the large number of people involved, and one that has been called the worst miscarriage of justice in history.
As long ago as 2005 Noel Thomas from Anglesey, who had worked for the Post Office for 42 years, was told he owed £50,000 and was convicted of false accounting and spent his 60th birthday in jail.
The same year Jo Hamilton from Hampshire pleaded guilty to false accounting to escape prison and had to re-mortgage her house to repay ‘the money she stole.”
And so it went on.
Apart from Post Office and computer executives, what were the myriad lawyers who must have been involved across the years thinking about this sudden outbreak of mass law-breaking among people who, until then, had been pillars of their local communities?
As for journalists, a freelance crime reporter such as Wallis can only do so much. Where were the Sunday newspaper investigation teams?
For the media it was a case of well done, on the whole. But it surely could have done better.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for Mediatel News on Wednesdays.
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