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The Post Office scandal and the shameful silence of the media

It shouldn't have taken an ITV drama to bring this travesty of justice to public attention.

Jordan Tyldesley

Topics Politics UK

The Post Office scandal has long deserved the public attention it is now getting, thanks to ITV’s new four-part dramatisation, Mr Bates vs The Post Office.

The scale and injustice of the scandal is extraordinary. Between 2000 and 2014, the Post Office prosecuted over 700 subpostmasters for fraud, false accounting or theft based on misleading information supplied by Horizon, the Post Office’s new but faulty IT system. From the moment Horizon was introduced, postmasters complained to Post Office management that it was generating discrepancies and errors. But Post Office higher-ups dismissed these as mere teething difficulties. It wasn’t long before Horizon started reporting cash shortfalls, some of which amounted to many thousands of pounds. This prompted the Post Office to commence criminal proceedings, leading in total to 736 innocent sub-postmasters being prosecuted for theft and fraud. Some were imprisoned and four people even took their own lives. It took until 2021 for the first of these wrongful convictions to be overturned.

The word ‘scandal’ doesn’t really seem to do justice to what amounts to the wilful and cruel ruination of so many lives. This wasn’t a celebrity infidelity or a politician swearing when he thought no one could hear. What happened here is a complete and utter travesty, a sickening injustice inflicted upon good, innocent people. And yet, incredibly, still no one has been prosecuted for what happened.

What is perhaps most shocking about the whole terrible affair is that most of the media paid so little attention to it for so long. Private Eye and Computer Weekly covered it extensively. And the BBC’s Panorama made an excellent documentary about it, too. But apart from that, there has been very little coverage and virtually no press outrage about this scandal until the ITV dramatisation came along. Pundits only too happy to fulminate over someone misgendering someone else said nothing about people being wrongfully convicted and even imprisoned on an industrial scale.

This matters. Those affected needed a press willing to hold those in power to account. A press willing to go after the truth. But that simply didn’t happen. The lack of real media interest in this scandal is depressing and disturbing. Most of the print media would rather obsess over the latest bit of Westminster gossip than focus on one of the most shocking injustices in recent British history.

Journalists need to get their priorities straight. They need to start discriminating between what matters and what doesn’t. They need to start holding power to account. After all, how can it be that hundreds of people’s lives were torn apart by these false accusations, and yet Lib Dem leader Ed Davey, currently in the running to be our next prime minister, has barely been questioned about this scandal?

When the software issues with Horizon started coming to light in 2010, Davey was under-secretary of state for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs. At the time, sub-postmaster and campaigner Alan Bates, who lost his job for raising concerns about the Horizon system, asked to meet Davey. But Davey turned down the request, telling Bates that he didn’t ‘believe a meeting would serve any useful purpose’. Only now, nearly 14 years and one ITV drama later, is Davey being challenged over his inaction, and even now he’s getting off lightly.

Those involved in what happened must finally be held responsible for the maltreatment of so many. This will sadly be too late for those who have since passed away. And there is little that can be done to redress the suffering of those whose lives were ruined by Post Office management. But some form of justice must still be served.

The fact it’s taken Mr Bates vs The Post Office to bring this scandal to the wider public’s attention ought to be a wake-up call for the news media. It shouldn’t take an ITV drama to highlight a miscarriage of justice as shocking and cruel as this.

Jordan Tyldesley is a writer. Follow her on Twitter: @pippybing.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK

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