Tuesday, February 06, 2024

The power of Mr Bates vs The Post Office in bringing about justice

Mr Bates vs The Post Office viewers left 'sick to their stomach' minutes into ITV drama

Viewers were left fuming just minutes into the start of new ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office as the series documents the true story of one of Britain's greatest miscarriages of justice

The power of Mr Bates vs The Post Office in bringing about justice

The million dollar question in journalism, if little known outside the industry, is "cut through" - how can a story be made to not only reach an audience, but keep them hooked.

It is a challenge that investigative journalist Nick Wallis, one of the key voices to first expose the Post Office scandal that began at the turn of the millennium, will know all too well.

Post Office Horizon scandal: Alan Bates rejects ‘cruel’ compensation offer

Former post office operator who inspired Mr Bates vs the Post Office says figure is about a sixth of what he requested

Alan Bates will reject the government’s Post Office Horizon scandal compensation offer, a figure that he says is only about a sixth of what he requested.

The former post office operator, whose story was the inspiration for the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, reportedly described the package as “cruel” and “derisory”.

The scandal, frequently described as “the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history”, resulted in more than 700 post office operators being prosecuted between 1999 and 2015 for theft, fraud and false accounting because of faulty accounting software installed in the late 1990s.

Mr Bates vs The Post Office

Mr Bates vs The Post Office is a four-part British television drama series for ITV, written by Gwyneth Hughes, directed by James Strongand starring an ensemble cast led by Toby Jones. The series is a dramatisation of the British Post Office scandal, a miscarriage of justice in which hundreds of subpostmasterswere wrongly prosecuted privately and publiclyfor theftfalse accounting or fraud due to a faulty computer system called Horizon. It was broadcast on four consecutive days from 1 January 2024.

London: In the end, despite extensive reporting in newspapers, online and on radio and television, perhaps a story about IT systems needed primetime drama to interest a mass audience.

In the weeks since Mr Bates vs the Post Office was beamed into British lounge rooms, the four-part series promises to bring closure for thousands of people caught up in what Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called one of the country’s biggest miscarriages of justice.
The British Post Office scandal has been labelled one of the country’s biggest miscarriages of justice.
The British Post Office scandal has been labelled one of the country’s biggest miscarriages of justice. GETTY
“People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and their reputations destroyed through absolutely no fault of their own,” Sunak told the House of Commons last month.
“The victims must get justice and compensation. We will make sure that the truth comes to light, we right the wrongs of the past and the victims get the justice they deserve.”
The show, broadcast over four consecutive nights last month, dramatised the fate of hundreds of sub-postmasters and mistresses who ran branches of the state-owned Post Office across Britain, and who – for almost 20 years from 1999 – were wrongly accused of theft and fraud after a defective IT system called Horizon created false shortfalls in their accounting.
When those accused pointed out that it was an issue with the software, rather than any illegal activity on their part, they were sacked, forced to repay the often huge “losses” and even sent to jail.
Toby Jones as Alan Bates and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Suzanne Sercombe in Mr Bates vs the Post Office.
Toby Jones as Alan Bates and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Suzanne Sercombe in Mr Bates vs the Post Office. SUPPLIED
More than 700 people were convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. At least four people took their own lives while one woman was sent to jail while pregnant. There were many bankruptcies, marriages fell apart, and people lost their homes and had their lives ruined. The saga has been likened to Australia’s Robo-debt scandal.
The scandal was able to reach such a pitch partly because, for 300 years, the Post Office – an anchor to the UK’s high streets where you can post parcels, deposit cash or top up the gas meter – has been able to conduct its own criminal investigations.
The semi-fictionalised account of the Horizon scandal followed the efforts of a handful of victims to seek justice, with Toby Jones (Dobby from Harry Potter) leading the cast as Alan Bates, a real-life sub-postmaster from north Wales who played a key role in the campaign to expose the scandal. Bates has now become a national treasure.
Alan Bates giving evidence via video to a British parliamentary inquiry into the scandal.
Alan Bates giving evidence via video to a British parliamentary inquiry into the scandal. AP
He was one of thousands of sub-postmasters for whom Horizon, a system created by the Japanese firm Fujitsu and installed in the 14,000 post offices, made it look like money was missing from his branches.
Bates bought a post office in Craig-y-Don, Llandudno in 1998, investing £65,000 in the business. By 2003 it closed, and Bates was accused of owing £1000. But he insisted he did not owe a penny.
The story, first broken in 2004 by the small trade magazine Computer Weekly, had been extensively covered for at least 15 years. But, amid a relentless news cycle and more people switching off the news, real justice had not been delivered. Then, on the first day of the new year, viewers switched on the new primetime drama in their millions. Almost 13 million people have now watched the show.
Polly Hill, ITV’s head of drama, said the series was commissioned because “it was a story that demanded to be told”.
“Like everyone watching the show, I couldn’t believe what had happened. We all just wanted the drama to help get that story heard by as many people as we could.”
Talkback radio was full of rage for days and more than 1.2 million people signed a petition to strip the former Post Office chief executive, Paula Vennells, of her CBE. Vennells, who was played in the show by Lia Williams, announced days later she would relinquish the honour given to her by the Queen in 2018.
Fujitsu’s office building in Bracknell, UK.
Fujitsu’s office building in Bracknell, UK. BLOOMBERG
A letter to The Guardianseemed to sum up the reaction of many across the country.
“With increasing incredulity and rage, I viewed as it revealed what lengths some senior executives and boards will go to protect their companies even when they know the lives of so many good and honest people are being ruined or terminated,” John Beer of Farnham, Surrey, wrote.
Less than a week after the final episode the British government announced that hundreds of post office operators would have their names cleared by parliament within months with legislation that would acquit all those convicted in the scandal. The blanket acquittal is thought to be the first time that parliament has been asked to overturn the verdict of courts of law.
Fujitsu, the Japanese company that developed the Horizon system, is also under increasing pressure, with UK politicians hoping to recover some of the costs of compensating victims from the firm, which still has billions of pounds worth of contracts with the British government.
“There’s been a lot of comment about how shameful it is that it’s taken a TV drama to get people to sit up and notice this scandal. But that’s what drama was invented to do,” Gwyneth Hughes, the show’s writer, told the BBC.
“It’s a source of huge pride to me that our team managed to tame the complexity and produce something people can understand as well as care about.”
Hughes said the response to the series – which will air on the Seven Network in February – had been “completely extraordinary” but she thinks that drama can do something that news reports cannot.
“Draw an audience in through great performances, and suspense, and catharsis, so that they identify with the characters and care about them and, yes, take notice.”
Hughes said the victims of the scandal, whom she met during the writing process, had managed to be “funny and warm and welcoming” even after 25 years of their ordeal.
“These were ordinary British people, living ordinary British lives, until suddenly, they weren’t,” she said.
“Suddenly, they were dubbed thieves and villains, trapped in a nightmare of false accusation and public humiliation. Innocent people, pillars of their communities, and the worst of it is that each of them was told they were the only one having problems with the Horizon computer system.”
The scandal has raised serious questions about Britain’s legal system and whether its political class is deaf to the plight of ordinary people. The software fault has been public knowledge for years, but most of the postmasters were still fighting for justice.
Many of the sub-postmasters were from minority groups. A parliamentary inquiry, which began in 2021, found that, as the accounting problems surfaced, Post Office fraud investigators were asked to group suspects based on skin colour and racial features, including “Chinese/Japanese types”, “Dark Skinned European Types” and “Negroid Types”. The Post Office apologised last year.
Sub-postmistress Seema Misra was found guilty in 2010 of stealing £74,000 and spent four months in jail. Her conviction was overturned in 2021. In a sworn statement, she described how she would have killed herself had she not been several weeks pregnant when sent to jail.
Misra was subsequently assaulted in the street, had to move home and her husband’s taxi company floundered.
“My life and that of my family was ruined,” she later wrote.
The real-life Bates, 69, whom the British public now wants to receive a knighthood, fought back tears on breakfast TV in the days after the show aired when the hosts told him that Virgin Atlantic boss Richard Branson was sending him and his long-term partner Suzanne Sercombe on an all-expenses paid holiday to Necker Island, the business magnate’s 30-hectare private island located in the British Virgin Islands.
Bates said the new TV show had made “a huge difference” to his long campaign for justice because “it does such a good job of exposing the suffering people have been through”.
“I’m not surprised the whole nation’s been moved by it,” he said.
But Bates has not finished fighting yet, saying on Wednesday that he will reject a “cruel” and “derisory” compensation offered by the government after he received about a sixth of the amount he had requested.
Bates was among more than 4000 people who have been told they will be eligible after their High Court challenge, in which a judge ruled that Horizon contained “bugs, errors and defects”.
They were initially awarded £57.75 million in a settlement, which shrank to £12 million or £20,000 each when legal costs were deducted. The government set up a compensation scheme for these postmasters called the Group Litigation Order. Interim payments have been paid out, while claimants await an offer for the final payment. But several hundred more who had their convictions overturned aren’t currently eligible for compensation.
“‘Full and fair’ might be his majesty’s government’s interpretation, but, in reality, the offer is derisory, offensive and after all this time, yes, cruel,” Bates told London’s Telegraph.
“I will absolutely be turning this offer for financial redress down. It is just a terrible way to treat human beings — and I have heard from several sub-postmasters who have received similarly derisory offers, while others are still waiting.”
Not a single Post Office executive nor Fujitsu employee has faced criminal investigation, although London’s Metropolitan Police said it was now investigating potential fraud offences for having forced postmasters to dig into their own money to make up the alleged shortfalls.
The Post Office said it was “doing all we can to right the wrongs of the past”.
But Bates said he would not be able to draw a line until the initial 555, the group who brought the court action, have received the financial redress due to them.
“You will never be able to repay people for what they’ve gone through and you will never be able to give them back all those years of suffering that they’ve had to endure,” he told the BBC. “But hopefully it might alleviate some of their problems going forward.”