Post Office drama shows real scandals must be pursued to the bitter end
The scandal is set to run and run, with more subplots to come, from the long-running public inquiry to the fate of some politicians – and the media needs to ensure coverage continues.
There is an unwritten law of the media and daily national newspapers in particular. It is that the news cycle always moves with almost mechanical certainty.
As we used to say, even the biggest story ends up as wrapping for fish and chips.
Eventually, there is some relief for those accused of the largest scandals as the news circus moves on to some newer and more shiny attractions.
Not this time.
More than two weeks after ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office focused public attention as never before on what has been widely called the greatest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, the reverberations continue to spread.
There had been documentaries on the subject before and a Panorama investigation as long ago as 2015, while Private Eye continued to chip away across the years.
But it is clear that it has been the power of drama that has made the difference and has fuelled further waves of reporting that shows no signs of receding.
At the heart of the issue is the sheer enormity of what was done, essentially in our name, because the Post Office is owned by the government, though privately operated.
The targets for further coverage are numerous and being exposed daily — from the Post Office itself to Fujitsu, the computer company that supplied the flawed system, to the legal profession and politicians.
And what were the expensive auditors of the Post Office doing while all this has been going on?
Purpose of a free press
A Times leader on Saturday summed up the situation well: “It is less than a fortnight since ITV broadcast its drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office but it is already proving one of the most important programmes yet made.”
The paper also paid tribute to the “dogged journalism” that dug out the story, while noting that before the sub-postmasters’ high court victory in 2019 there had been an obstinate unwillingness by ministers to even consider the possibility that there might have been a miscarriage of justice.
“That has been and will always be the purpose of a free press,” The Times concluded.
Several factors are now driving the coverage of the scandal forward. They include the slowness of the mechanisms of compensation and possibly the inadequacy of the planned mass pardons.
As the public inquiry continues its stately progress, there is still a lot of work to be done by journalists on who knew what when.
They were helped yesterday on the business select committee, when Fujitsu for the first time publicly confirmed the scale of its contribution to the multiple personal tragedies and lives turned upside down.
In a single damning sentence, Paul Patterson, Fujitsu’s European CEO, admitted: “We were involved from the very start — we did have bugs and errors in the system and we did help the Post Office in the prosecution of sub-postmasters.”
Patterson also agreed that the Japanese company had “ a moral obligation” to contribute to the compensation of those involved, many of whom went to jail.
The media will likely conclude that there is rather more than a “moral” obligation here and lawyers may consider whether Fujitsu staff may not have been involved, along with Post Office personnel, in perverting the course of justice.
An election year scandal
Another strand of the story is the political one.
In an election year, the right-wing press will try to attach some of the blame to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who was in charge of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) during part of the relevant period.
There is a stronger case against the current leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Ed Davey.
Sir Ed was Post Office minister in the coalition government from 2010 and 2012, and although he had said he regrets not getting to the bottom of the issue, he has refused — repeatedly — to apologise when challenged by journalists.
The latest story in the Sir Ed saga is that he is going to be challenged by a former postal worker, who intends to stand against him in his south-west London seat of Kingston and Surbiton.
Some support for Sir Keir and Sir Ed came this week from documentary maker John Sweeney when he pointed out that it was only in 2015, with the help of a whistleblower, that it became publicly known there were errors in the Horizon IT system.
Another impact of the ITV drama is the likelihood that coverage of the inquiry, which has been sporadic at best, will receive much more comprehensive coverage.
The media has learned a lesson, partly thanks to ITV, of the need for systematic and sustained coverage even when a story appears to have gone off the boil.
Real scandals, and the Post Office is obviously one, have to be pursued to the bitter end.
Rather like the police going back into the files to reinvestigate cold cases, media outlets should have a further look at scandals in plain sight that have been allowed to slip down the public agenda.
One obvious candidate, even without the help of a drama, is the large numbers of people infected with hepatitis C and HIV by contaminated blood products. The delayed inquiry report is now due in March.
The failures and inadequacies of the scheme to compensate the Windrush generation and botched attempts to export people who have lived most of their lives in the UK could also do with more sustained coverage.
The lesson of Mr Bates vs The Post Office is that, with major injustices, you must tell the story as many times as it takes until justice is finally done.
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.