Media's pivotal role in the Post Office scandal
An ITV drama has now propelled one of the country’s biggest miscarriages of justice back into the spotlight.
For the media, there is now just one overriding question about the great Post Office scandal.
How on earth did a four-part drama on ITV, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, get everyone — not least the government — suddenly jumping about at long last with an unprecedented sense of urgency?
There has been years of coverage of one of the most widespread miscarriages of justice in British legal history in the computer press, Private Eye, the Daily Mail; there was a Panorama investigation and then it was on to a prize-winning Radio 4 documentary series by Nick Wallis who, over many years, made the story his own.
There was also Wallis’s book, The Great Post Office Scandal, and his detailed coverage of the continuing pubic inquiry into how around 900 sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted for theft because of a faulty IT system.
More than 3,000 had been wrongly accused of stealing from their sub-post offices and many crippled themselves financially to pay back the money they were supposed to owe.
In truth, the media was slow on to the full implications of what was happening to sub-postmasters such as Alan Bates, who was dismissed in 2000 after reporting problems with the Horizon computer system introduced by Fujitsu for the Post Office.
A largely overlooked story
There is a telling moment in the first episode of the ITV drama when a reporter from Computer Weekly came to interview Bates. She notes that Bates had first got in touch with them five years earlier but nothing was done and the reporter apologises.
With the honourable exception of Computer Weekly and later Private Eye, how could such a monstrous story be largely overlooked by the major media battalions for so long?
In an interview with InPublishing, Wallis explained that although Bates was a great campaigner who had formed the Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance, at the time he didn’t like doing interviews. The Post Office, Wallis noted, was also in “batshit denial” and sent threatening legal letters to any journalists asking awkward questions.
It also had not helped that not a single conviction had been overturned or that many of the sub-postmasters had been bullied into pleading guilty to avoid a prison sentence and had to agree not to discuss the issue as part of the plea-bargaining process.
Eventually, the national newspapers got there, led by the Daily Mail, which has plugged away at the story for the past five years.
So the mainstream media — eventually — did well on the issue. Their performance was brilliant compared with that of the legal profession or politicians.
They demonstrated an abject lack of curiosity on why hundreds of previously honest sub-postmasters all started stealing thousands from their tills and that it just happened to coincide with the arrival of a new computer system.
Yet progress until last week had been glacial. More than 90 of those affected had already died — four by their own hand. Only 93 of the 900 wrongful convictions have been overturned and few have managed to get full compensation.
Step forward ITV with an unlikely commission and an equally improbable prime-time slot on consecutive nights in the first week of the new year.
It would have been easy to turn down such a drama proposal. The BBC had already run documentary series; by then a great deal was already known about the scandal; there were no big stars or well-known names — just people who had been pillars of their local communities across the country.
So all hail to those responsible for commissioning the drama series brought to the screen by independent production company Little Gem with ITV Studios and turned it into almost unbearable viewing by its vastly experienced writer Gwyneth Hughes.
It works so well because Hughes has given an authentic voice to those who were so traduced by the Post Office.
Hughes shows, and we can watch the tragedy unfold before our eyes, the postmistress who sees the amount she has supposedly lost double before her eyes while she is on the phone to the Horizon “helpline”.
Power of drama
There lies the power and emotional impact of drama rather than cold print or even a documentary — you can see, feel and empathise.
It was also important that the drama appeared on a mainstream public-service channel able to initially pull in around four million on the overnights.
The classicist Mary Beard has put the impact of the programme and Toby Jones, who plays Bates, into a historic context. “Toby Jones brilliantly speaks up for drama, from ancient Greece to the 20th century, as catalysts for change and justice,” says Beard, who argues that therefore drama should be properly funded.
There are a couple of little ITV-specific wheezes. The drama probably correctly concentrates on the role of former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells. But it does not mention her predecessor during the time of the prosecutions was Adam Crozier, who became CEO of ITV.
There is another wrinkle. The current chairman of the Post Office, who should be trying to sort out the mess with greater speed, is none other than Henry Staunton, former finance director of Granada, who played a considerable role in the consolidation of ITV.
Details, details. There is no doubt that Mr Bates vs The Post Office is already television drama of the year — whatever is yet to come.
What happens next?
The Times reported yesterday that ministers have already drawn up plans to fast-track the appeals of more than 700 still-outstanding criminal convictions.
At the same time, the Mail is pushing for the government to finally compensate all the wrongly accused postmasters.
The postmasters are wary of being pardoned by a rapid act of parliament. They were found guilty by the legal system and want to be cleared by the legal system.
You can have class actions in civil cases; it ought to be possible to arrange something similar in this unusual set of circumstances.
A finding by the appeal court that the Horizon system was flawed — and there is plenty of evidence for that — ought to be enough to render all convictions imposed on those using the system unsafe.
That in turn would release compensation.
The Liberal Democrats’ leader Sir Ed Davey, who was postal affairs minister for a number of those years, may — in an election year — have to consider his position.
Ultimately, it is a victory for the media — with an ITV drama in the vanguard.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.