Yesterday evening I arrived home to find Fiona and Alicia watching Mr Bates vs The Post Office. It is an extraordinarily powerful piece of drama and it is impossible not to be outraged by the horrific injustice perpetrated by the Post Office and Fujitsu. It is an injustice that is uniquely grotesque and one which constitutes an egregious abuse of power. Hundreds of innocent people lost their livelihoods and many law-abiding citizens ended up in prison. Some sub-postmasters were even convinced to plead guilty in order to avoid prison time despite knowing that they were wholly innocent. For some, the strain became intolerable. Martin Griffiths, a sub-postmaster of eighteen years standing, was hounded mercilessly after wrongly being suspected of stealing £100,000 from his shop in Ellesmere Port. In 2013, he took his own life.
It would be easy to blame glitches in the Horizon accountancy software and there was certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that it could not add up correctly. Gerald Barnes, a software developer at Fujitsu, conceded that Horizon’s error handling ‘wasn’t as good as it could have been if designed properly from the start’. Indeed, last week’s inquiry heard that glitches in the CABSProcess, which summarised a Post Office’s daily transactions, resulted in users working at the same time experiencing ‘balancing issues’. Crucially, the system did not make Post Office operators aware of the problem. Barnes referred to this as a ‘silent failure’.
Denial, obfuscation and a breathtaking dose of arrogance characterised the Post Office’s response to the situation. Fujitsu officials clearly put their own corporate interests above the interests of the sub-postmasters. There was a reluctance to admit fault or assume responsibility for what was, by any measure, a disastrous misjudgement. Those in positions of power, like Paula Fennell, failed to ask the right questions and were too easily bamboozled by technical experts who closed down those who challenged the infallibility of the software. Even the extraordinary number of cases could not dislodge the view that any irregularities were due to criminal activity as opposed to computational errors within the Horizon software itself.
At various points in modern history, those in positions of authority have colluded with one another to suppress the truth. One thinks of the Hillsborough Disaster and the murder of Stephen Lawrence. In some instances, public inquiries provide an investigative context within which the truth may be established and public officials held to account. Revelations arising from inquiries such as the Manchester Arena Inquiry and the Infected Blood Inquiry can shake our faith in those charged with the responsibility for keeping us safe. Of course, mistakes do happen but it can take years of persistence to establish the truth.
Experience tells us that we should not have blind faith in the judicial system and nor should we imagine that corporate bodies guilty of perpetrating suffering on others will willingly accept culpability. The ‘system’ does not always work and it is not rare for innocent people to be found guilty of crimes they simply did not commit.
Time and again it is ordinary people who do the heavy lifting when it comes to holding those in power to account. It is often the case that people like Alan Bates achieve more than an army of legal experts and government advisers. Alan has spent the last twenty years of his life campaigning for justice. He founded the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) and has worked tirelessly on behalf of those who have been wronged. He has demonstrated the most remarkable levels of tenacity and courage. Alan is an unassuming hero of our time and a valiant warrior for truth and justice. It is impossible not to feel inspired by his example. His fight is far from over.
Margaret Aspinall lost her eighteen year old son in the Hillsborough Disaster on 15th April, 1989. Since then, she has dedicated her life to campaigning for justice. Not so long ago, Margaret explained how she was forced to accept a derisory £1200 compensation for the death of her son in order to pay for the inquest into the death of the 96 people who died. Meanwhile, South Yorkshire Police’s defence was funded by the Police Foundation. The Hillsborough Family Support Group received no public funding until Theresa May became Home Secretary in 2010 – some twenty one years later. Theresa May recalls that, ‘a senior minister had hidden in a cupboard rather than attend a meeting with grieving families.’ She continued, ‘it exemplified the attitude of some colleagues’.
The murder of Stephen Lawrence shocked a nation and it took a public inquiry, led by Sir William Macpherson, to establish that the Metropolitan Police Service was ‘institutionally racist’. Stephen’s mother Doreen (now Dame Doreen Lawrence) campaigned tirelessly for justice for her son. On the first national Stephen Lawrence Day, on 22nd April 2019, she explained that she had worked for twenty six years for, ‘an inclusive society for everyone to live their best life, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, religion, disability or background’.
These massively impressive individuals are often autodidacts. They do not hold Oxbridge degrees and nor do they have any of the power so casually misused by their entitled adversaries. They are often forced to educate themselves in the finer points of law and their formidable skills are honed through years of active campaigning.
Stories matter and there has been some debate about the role played by an ITV drama in terms of holding the Post Office to account. Belatedly, the government has jumped into action and suddenly it finds that it is able to pass primary legislation which will quash the wrongful convictions of over nine hundred postmasters. Personally, I believe that it serves to highlight the extraordinary power of drama. A story has been told well and public pressure has been brought to bear upon the government. That seems entirely healthy within a liberal democracy.
Schools should teach children to question authority and to give them the skills to do so effectively. In an unforgiving world, it is important for young people to have the courage and confidence necessary to stand up for the truth and to challenge false narratives or lazy explanations. It is important for young people to be able to construct arguments, evaluate evidence and ask the right questions. One hopes that our children will never find themselves in such an invidious position as the wrongfully convicted subpostmasters did, but it might be that they will choose to become powerful and eloquent advocates for those who are marginalised or disempowered.
Unthinking deference to authority and unquestioning faith in the words of experts is hugely damaging. There is much we can learn from inspirational figures such as Alan Bates, Dame Doreen Lawrence and Margaret Aspinall. I intend to share their stories with my own daughters.
Headmaster of Rossall School