It was a shocking scandal and a gross miscarriage of justice. And yet, it took a television show to highlight the UK’s Post Office scandal, leading to a huge public outcry and demands for accountability. I have never seen anything like it. So what was it all about? Hundreds of post office workers between 2000-2014 had been wrongly convicted and even jailed for theft and fraud for what turned out to be a software glitch in the systems.
In 1999, the UK post office adopted a new IT system called Horizon which was developed by the Japanese company, Fujitsu. Soon after it was adopted, many sub-postmasters suddenly saw money disappearing from their accounts. These were losses they just could not understand. Some realised it was a software issue and flagged it higher up. But no one wanted to listen.
Many went bankrupt trying to return the lost money because the rules held them responsible for their accounts. Families were broken, lives devastated. At least four workers took their own lives. A pregnant worker was also sent to jail. Some of the postal workers got together, thanks to a tenacious branch manager named Alan Bates and fought valiantly for justice by going to court.
Mr. Bates vs the Post Office
Even then, the scandal evoked no public sympathy, despite being reported in the media. Until now. The show on ITV, which aired last month, is called ‘Mr. Bates vs the Post Office’.
It is simply brilliant, chronicling what happened and how families were hit, how bureaucracy and red tape in the British system added to the injustice. It tells us how Alan Bates lead the fight back and exposed the sheer callousness of the Post Office which kept insisting the IT systems were flawless.
The public reaction to the show was instant. Within days, people were writing on social media, writing to newspapers, and signing petitions demanding action, demanding that the convictions be overturned.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promised to reverse the 900 or so convictions through a new law. Those wrongly convicted will also be compensated 75,000 GBP per person. The outrage has been so huge that Paula Vennells, the former CEO of the Post Office, was forced to return her Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) title.
Within days of the show airing, more than one million people had signed a petition that Vennells should return the honour. There is now an independent public inquiry that is headed by a former high court judge which is gathering evidence, along with a police inquiry into the wrongful convictions.
But what has still not happened is any accountability within the Post Office. Not a single official is facing legal action for their role in covering up Fujitsu’s mess.
A story that tugs at our hearts
What this entire story has demonstrated is the real power of television and that too old fashioned TV. In less than a week during which the show aired on ITV, the public outcry in the UK was massive.
Even though activists and politicians had been trying to highlight the plight of the postal workers for years, there was nothing that really touched peoples’ hearts the way ‘Mr Bates vs the Post Office’ did. The performances are outstanding and capture the trauma that families went through and are still struggling with. Reports say the show’s creator was also surprised by the scale of its success and the kind of reaction it has evoked.
The story also tugs at our hearts because it is the classic story of the underdog who is taking on a mighty institution, that too an institution which is so deeply connected with British life and culture, that many found it hard to believe they had been so callous. Alan Bates lead the fight with very little money and resources.
He meticulously compiled the evidence and convinced more workers to join the fight. A David vs Goliath story becomes humanised on TV. Alan Bates is still fighting the good fight. And now he has millions of people cheering him on as well.