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Post Office Horizon scandal shows the power of mass media | Jake Smith | image of a couple looking shocked
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Post Office Horizon scandal shows the power of mass media

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With the Post Office Horizon scandal showing the power of mass media, Jake Smith asks why it took an ITV drama to bring the case to wider attention.

18th Jan 2024
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The saga of the Post Office Horizon scandal has been going on for more than twenty years now, but the incredible success of ITV's recent dramatisation of Mr Bates vs the Post Office has been a revelation. Featuring some excellent performances from a talented cast, the mini-series brought to life the impact that the badly implemented technology and seemingly appalling corporate culture at Post Office had on hardworking individuals.

I have to say it was a must-watch TV show. It was initially quite a hard sell to persuade my partner to watch it with me, but we were both immediately hooked. The writers did a great job of bringing to life a complex multi-thread story affecting thousands of people across nearly two decades while never losing sight of the human impact.

Corporate greed or criminal negligence?

There were some harrowing scenes focussing on the tragic impact the scandal has had on the affected subpostmasters (SPMs) and their families. But the overall impression from the show and the articles that I’ve read was that there seems to have been an awful lot of appalling behaviour from Post Office and Fujitsu. This covers both employees and directors and persisted for many years, even after it should surely have been clear that there were serious issues with the Horizon software. 

The contrast between the evidence and attitudes from representatives over the past few days at the inquiry has been quite clear. As Tom Herbert reported on AWEB, it seems as though senior leaders at Fujitsu are genuinely sorry and concerned about what has happened, whereas the evidence from Post Office representatives seems to be more in the ”it wasn’t my fault” camp. That is not to exonerate Fujitsu from their fair share of the blame. It is clear that without the former Fujitsu employee and whistleblower Richard Roll, the subpostmasters may have faced an even longer wait for any justice.

Things haven’t been concluded yet though, even since 2021 when a judge at the Court of Appeal was so appalled that he described the Horizon prosecutions as "an affront to the conscience of the court", many of the SPMs still have convictions and many have received little or no compensation for the personal and financial trauma they’ve been put through.

As someone who has many friends in IT teams at large corporates and having worked at a large corporate company myself, it’s hard to imagine anyone having as much faith in a system as Post Office placed in Horizon. Most people are all too aware that no IT system is perfect, and the bigger the system, the more likely that there will be issues. So surely when multiple SPMs started reporting problems, alarm bells should have been ringing?

Instead, Post Office seems to have had an assumption that the SPMs were dishonest and over the years an incredible 10% of their SPMs were deliberately defrauding them or stealing. This is astonishing, very unfair and evidence of a dreadful corporate culture within Post Office. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Especially as they were able to act as judge, jury and executioner in many of these cases. 

As well as the awful impact on the SPMs, losing their reputation, livelihoods and even in some cases their lives, insult has been added to injury as Post Office not only unfairly prosecuted these people, but it then used the financial proceeds to boost their profits. Profits that are likely to have led to bonuses for executives at Post Office. Were there incentives for the investigators to get successful prosecutions? There was certainly evidence of satisfaction and praise for the teams that won these convictions for Post Office.

We’ve seen former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells belatedly offer to hand back her CBE, but it would seem that there should be bonuses being handed back by many Post Office directors and employees.

David vs Goliath

The bravery of the subpostmasters, the sheer dogged determination of Alan Bates and the others who persevered for so long is amazing. It’s an incredible example of individuals standing up for what is right against almost insurmountable odds and I believe he deserves a medal. 

Our justice system, whilst heralded as the envy of much of the world, does make it very hard for people at times. Clear evidence of this is the fact that although Bates and the group of SPMs won nearly £54 million, it cost them £44 million in legal fees to do so.

Lessons to be learned

So what can we learn from this appalling scandal? 

Well, sadly, not trusting the desire of huge corporate firms to do the right thing without being forced to is one cynical but inescapable lesson. 

Another would be that individuals and whole teams within organisations can be capable of awful and cruel decisions, even when they believe they are doing the right thing. It’s hard to understand where the humanity was in many of Post Office’s actions.  

Also more positively, that against all odds, individuals can make a difference. Amongst others, Alan Bates, Ron Warmington of Second Sight, the former MP James Arbuthnot (now Lord Arbuthnot), whistleblower Richard Roll and former BBC journalist turned investigative reporter Nick Wallis, deserve praise and thanks for their hard work.

Good journalism can make a difference as well. The amazing work of the teams at Computer Weekly, Private Eye, BBC local news, radio and Panorama as well as many others helping the SPMs bring these issues to light is to be commended.

And surprisingly, that in these times of mass media, proliferation of streaming services and online distraction, a prime-time TV show can make a real difference in a miscarriage of justice. Despite all the excellent journalistic work, publicity and court cases, the startling change of pace in proceedings and moves by the government to try to overturn convictions and get compensation seemed to only start once the court of public opinion had been truly awakened by the ITV drama.

Where next?

One question that immediately springs to mind is: what other miscarriages of justice are bubbling under the surface, yet to gain enough attention for parliamentary scrutiny and the enactment of new laws aimed at addressing these problems?

There may be multiple possible examples in the tax world alone, though whether they would so easily be turned into a successful and moving TV drama remains to be seen. Perhaps we need Toby Jones and the team of ITV writers to look into the loan charge or even the thorny issue of IR35. Whether these or other possible candidates for serialisation are quite as clear cut in the good vs evil stakes remains to be seen, but let’s hope that justice is served in a timely manner in these cases.

Replies (12)

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By johnjenkins
19th Jan 2024 09:57

Interesting Article and "where next" is what will happen. Nick Wallace actually said that the main reason this disgrace didn't come to light earlier was that investigative journalism was short of a bite or two.
Therein lies the problem. Let's get Boris at a party, let's have a go at Prince Andrew (I'm not saying they shouldn't) but you can see where this is going.

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Jake Smith, AccountingWEB
By Jake Smith
19th Jan 2024 15:33

It's probably as much to do with the public's appetite (or the publishers opinion of what they want). I'd say that it does seem it was hard to grab the public's attention in spite of the great work by Nick Wallis and other journalists at Private Eye, Panorama, Computer Weekly etc. who did their best to bring it to light.

Unfortunately, this work and the contemporary reporting of it in AccountingWEB from David Winch (https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/tech/tech-pulse/post-office-rebuffs-hori...) and John Stokdyk amongst others did not draw the attention of the wider public sufficiently to drive change at speed. It's impressive that the ITV show did manage it.

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By johnjenkins
23rd Jan 2024 10:16

I think it's more of the publishers opinion. We are being manipulated more and more by those that think they know in which direction we should be moving. Kids homework is on apps that you can't (or have major difficulty) get into. Everyday life is becoming a chore all because of this "digital technical age". Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a back up. So looks like ITV are onto a winner.

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By Tony1958
19th Jan 2024 12:08

Apart from the fact that it shouldn't take a TV series to get justice what actually went wrong?

Despite the size of the post office accounting is not difficult. So what exactly where the issues with the Horizon system? I hear that the monies paid by the SPMs was put into a suspense account as clearly it hadn't come from anywhere, such as a sale. Then it was later released into the profit.

No business can have surplus cash that just comes from nowhere.

Did no one ask where this money had actually come from? Did none of the SPMs accountants do some simple book balancing to prove these losses (or not)? everybody relied on what the computer system said?

I don't understand.

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Jake Smith, AccountingWEB
By Jake Smith
19th Jan 2024 13:08

I agree, the fact that Post Office seem to have simply absorbed the monies paid by the SPMs as profits is quite incredible.

There appear to have been multiple things that were going wrong, one thing that seems to be significant is whether branches had more than one Horizon machine. However the fact that Fujitsu tech people were able to make seemingly intractable amends to the data, despite repeated denials by Fujitsu and Post Office is another extremely worrying part of it all.

The whole thing is just a mess. It seems like Horizon works well most of the time, except when it doesn't. How on earth did it come to SPMs having to put in their own money to make up supposed losses. It does not seem as though Post Office were willing to accept SPM attempts to challenge Horizon figures.

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By johnjenkins
19th Jan 2024 14:02

Tony, the money actually came from undeclared sales (according to Horizon) so therefore it is sales.

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By kirstiej
20th Jan 2024 08:44

I think sometimes errors arose when customers were paying utility bills in cash, so that would have been a balance sheet transaction.

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By johnjenkins
22nd Jan 2024 08:52

Unless someone can actually identify every error that occurred, we, again, are at the behest of the powers that be.

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By kirstiej
20th Jan 2024 09:51

It’s really worth reading the book by Nick Wallis. In the case of Pam Stubbs somebody from the post office came to observe what she was doing in tbe branch (and couldn’t work out why the system was still generating errors in his presence) and there are emails between investigators regretting that this will make prosecution harder. No interest in finding the problem or establishing the correct figures. She wasn’t prosecuted but still lost her post office and was pursued for the money.

When forensic accountants raised concerns about the case of a man who had committed suicide, the Post Office suddenly offered his wife a settlement that came with an NDC and expired in 24 hours and sacked the forensic accountants.

However they didn’t tell any of this to the man who took over the branch, and they only stopped pursuing Horizon generated losses from him in 2019.

Like you, I can’t understand how any of this complied with accounting, tax or AML duties.

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By FactChecker
19th Jan 2024 20:19

1. "why it took an ITV drama to bring the case to wider attention?"
- well, apart from the scale of access that mainstream TV still has, the principal power came from the screen-writers.
Whereas CW and P Eye struggled to convey anything beyond the general sense of outrage (because they were getting bogged down in trying to uncover details whilst the P.O. deliberately obscured them), the screen-writers had the benefit of access to a lot more detail - but cleverly used this, as per the storyteller's craft, to focus on a few points that could be hammered home repetitively.
Anyone who watched will be immediately aware of the "you're the the only one affected" lie!

2. "it’s hard to imagine anyone having as much faith in a system as Post Office placed in Horizon."
- except it's not so hard to imagine (although beyond excuse) at the then P.O. Ltd, due to two main factors:
a) as you mention, their right to "act as judge, jury and executioner" meant that the culture, even halfway up the tree, was that of 'we are always in the right'; and
b) the political environment pushing for privatisation drove a need for declared profits at a higher priority than any other consideration (and the leeches hired to do that driving were rewarded almost solely via the promise of achieving those aims - and had no incentive to consider anything, or anyone, else).

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By FactChecker
19th Jan 2024 20:51

"what other miscarriages of justice are bubbling under the surface?"
Too many, far too many.

But arguably the greatest one is the state of HMRC itself.
Unlike the P.O. scandal which has the 'benefit' of a clearly demarcated group of sufferers and a single (if poorly defined) cause of their anguish, HMRC is slowly but unreservedly collapsing into a monster that can make the P.O. look almost benevolent to anyone who falls foul of their broken systems/processes & investigators.

The more obvious sub-groups that are suffering (due to the Loan Charge or IR35 or whatever) are relatively easy for the behemoth HMRC to paint as undeserving of sympathy ('people who sought to evade tax' and so on).
Irrespective of whether that is a valid perspective it certainly obscures the very real pain & damage being done to many individuals, but it'll take a very special screen-writer to create a feel-good envelope in which to wrap *their* story ... such as to engender the sympathies of the general population, who can empathise with postmasters (as people like them or with whom they transacted).

In the meantime HMRC continues to brightly claim that 99.5% of X or even 95% of Y being filed on-time equates to them being 'successful'.
Leaving aside the fact that many of those filings are incorrect (but inadequately cross-checked) and a substantial number of correct ones are mangled by HMRC's internal software until false results are posted to core databases;
there is the small matter that those 'small' %ages deemed unsuccessful represent hundreds of thousands of individual taxpayers and small businesses.

Whilst the severity of impact is enormously variable (they can range from mildly annoying / stressful all the way through to catastrophic - resulting in some cases, in a horrible echo of the P.O. scandal, in suicides), they are difficult to summarise as a homogenous group for which a human story could be scripted.
But they exist in quantity and the scale of injustices being perpetuated by HMRC continues to grow directly in line with its increased belief & reliance on I.T.

Which is where the similarities with the P.O. look ever more haunting ... infallibility of 'our' processes + forced reliance on poorly tested systems.
Fortunately they don't have the draconian powers (hopefully to be removed from the P.O.), but they do have something arguably even more potent ... the apparent inability to allow those 'persecuted' to have easy channels of communication where issues can be raised / explained / discussed (maybe even resolved) before irreversible damage is done.

If any of this sounds familiar ... then you'll understand why people anticipate MTD with such glee!

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By petestar1969
23rd Jan 2024 11:05

The biggest scandal here is the Post Office knew Horizon was dodgy from Day One....

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