Mr Bates vs The Post Office

The Great Post Office Scandal has been described as one of the most widespread miscarriages of justice in legal history. We hear from Gwyneth Hughes, screenwriter of the forthcoming ITV drama and journalist Nick Wallis who has been reporting on the scandal for 13 years…

Coming to our screens this month is the four-part ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, which tells the story of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British legal history. Hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters and postmistresses were wrongly accused of theft, fraud, and false accounting due to a defective IT system. Many of the wronged workers were prosecuted, some were imprisoned for crimes they never committed, and their lives were irreparably damaged by the scandal.

Toby Jones, Monica Dolan, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Lia Williams, Alex Jennings, Ian Hart, Katherine Kelly, Shaun Dooley, Will Mellor, Clare Calbraith, Lesley Nicol, Amit Shah, and Adam James star in the new drama, written by screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes and produced by ITV Studios and Little Gem.

Gwyneth Hughes explains: “Every storyteller has to make choices, and anchoring our narrative with Alan Bates [the sub-postmaster who fought for decades to expose the Post Office Horizon IT scandal] was an easy one. But how to choose our supporting cast, among the thousands of lives ruined, over a quarter of a century… As we started work, the country was in lockdown, so we got on the phone. Lockdown ended, I got on the road. Drank a lot of tea and made new friends.”

These were painful choices; in the end we had time to tell eight stories. But every bruised and battered sub-postmaster has a jawdropping story to tell. Every one of them deserves to be heard.”

“On the Post Office side, perhaps unsurprisingly, fewer doors opened. I have not met Paula Vennells [chief executive officer of Post Office Limited from 2012 to 2019], though I did get a good look at her astonishingly glamorous legal team on the first day of the Public Inquiry. What was she thinking? What did she know, and when? Will we ever find out? I spoke to people who worked with her, and I tried to navigate fairly between their multiple insights into her conduct and personality.

“It’s the question I am asked most often: what on earth was going on inside the management of the Post Office? What were they on, these people? Was it group think? Lack of imagination? Confirmation bias? A belief that as public servants they were somehow too virtuous to do wrong? Poor training, plain stupidity, or rank villainy?

“It is of course for the Public Inquiry to find definitive answers. But every sub-postmaster has a view, and so does every member of our production team! As played by Toby Jones, our hero Alan Bates faces this question in the final episode.

Asked to say if the Post Office is evil or incompetent, Alan replies:

“It amounts to the same thing, in the end.”

Lia Williams plays Paula Vennells, the former CEO of the Post Office

Nick Wallis on the real story:
Journalist Nick Wallis has reported on the Post Office Horizon Scandal since 2010. Most of the work he has done on the story has been crowdfunded. He has presented, produced and consulted on three BBC Panoramas about the Post Office scandal. He has written about it for Private Eye and presented a BBC Radio 4 series on the subject. He has also written a book called The Great Post Office Scandal. Here Nick brings us up to date with progress on what has been achieved and how the search for justice continues.

You have reported on The Post Office Horizon Scandal since 2010. What has kept you engaged with the story?
The sub-postmasters. I realised quite early on that if what the sub-postmasters were saying was true, this was a huge story. It’s appalling that one innocent person should be convicted of a crime, but I was being told about dozens. I checked their stories, their background and their documents, and while they couldn’t, in those days, prove there was a serious problem with the Horizon IT system, there was nothing to suggest they had committed a crime. The problem was trying to persuade news outlets that this was as big a deal as I thought it might be. Thankfully a few brilliant editors got it and tried to give the story the exposure it deserved.

How do the sub-postmasters feel about The Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, which has been taking place since 2020?
There is remarkably little frustration around the progress of the Inquiry, which surprises me, as it is a very slow process. One of the reasons for this is because it is doing an incredibly professional and empathetic job. Although Sir Wyn Williams (who chairs the Inquiry) gives the impression of a twinkly eyed old cove, he has a sharp mind. His team of barristers seem very able, across the enormity of this multifaceted scandal. By contrast, some of the witnesses, especially those from the Post Office, have been disastrous. The parade of human incompetence on display has been staggering. It’s now possible for anyone to see just how this disaster came about.

How many of the victims have received adequate compensation?
The short answer is too few. We know at least 63 sub-postmasters have died while waiting for full and final compensation and it is inevitable that more people will die. Many sub-postmasters bought a Sub-Post Office as a last job before retirement. Instead of being able to enjoy their retirement, hundreds, possibly thousands have been left in desperate financial straits because the Post Office robbed them of their savings. Now, despite four compensation schemes, their lawyers are arguing over how much they should have to give back.

Do you feel that the Post Office will be held properly to account over the Horizon Scandal?
It’s a tricky one, this. Think back to all the big scandals in British public life – Windrush, Hillsborough, Grenfell, the Mid-Staffs NHS hospital scandal, the infected blood scandal, the banking crisis… has anyone properly been held to account? A vanishingly small number of people may have been sacked or moved sideways, or asked to resign, but I don’t think anyone responsible for any of the above has been given a criminal conviction, save the former club secretary at Hillsborough, who was fined £6,500 for a safety offence.

This suggests that everyone involved in the Post Office Scandal will likely get away scot-free, BUT… I am less cynical than I was. There is already a criminal investigation underway by the Metropolitan Police, on hold while the Inquiry is ongoing. Lawyers for sub-postmasters are openly suggesting there was a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice at the heart of the Post Office. Next year we will hear from the most senior executives at the Post Office who were there at the time of the alleged conspiracy. Their evidence will be fascinating and may prompt the police to make charging recommendations to the Crown Prosecution Service.

What about the failures in the criminal justice system?
In 1999 the Post Office supported the removal of the requirement for authorities using computer evidence to prove their IT was working adequately. This duty was replaced by a legal ‘presumption’ that if a machine (including a complex, sprawling electronic eco-system like Horizon) looked like it was working properly, then it was.

The burden of proof was reversed. Sub-postmasters were required to prove the Horizon system was not working correctly when they had discrepancies and sadly this legal beartrap is outside the Inquiry’s scope. There is going to be a section on access to justice for sub-postmasters trying to draw attention to Horizon problems, and there is another section on the bargaining which the Post Office used to secure guilty pleas, but nothing which calls into question the criminal justice system’s almost unblinking institutional support for the Post Office (until the Court of Appeal judgment in 2021) or bone-headed approach to IT evidence.

What was your involvement the ITV drama?
I am a series consultant on Mr Bates vs The Post Office. I put former sub-postmaster Alan Bates in touch with the production company, provided contacts and background information to the production team, including various documents which haven’t yet seen the light of day, but I stayed out of everything else!

Does the drama stay true to the real and harrowing experiences of the Scandal’s victims? Did you feel strongly about the need to avoid sweetening elements for dramatic purposes?
I don’t think any of it has been sweetened. At times it is bleak. I think the series brings the scandal to life, while staying very faithful to the spirit and facts of the story.

The Great Post Office Scandal by Nick Wallis (paperback, £13.99) is the first definitive account of the scandal. Nick and the publishers Bath Publishing Company donate 5% of the income from sales of the book to the Horizon Scandal Fund, which directly helps sub-postmasters in need

The series Mr Bates vs The Post Office is now available on ITVX.

The Great Post Office Scandal by Nick Wallis (paperback, £13.99) is the first definitive account of the scandal. Nick and the publishers Bath Publishing Company donate 5% of the income from sales of the book to the Horizon Scandal Fund, which directly helps sub-postmasters in need