The innocent have paid a high price for the Post Office scandal. The guilty have not

The innocent have paid a high price for the Post Office scandal. The guilty have not

February 15, 2022

It was the word of hundreds of Post Office workers against a faulty computer system. Guess who was believed?

Last modified on Tue 15 Feb 2022 10.53 EST

Some stories feel so unbelievable that every time you think of them again, you have to sit with the basic concept for a few moments just to remind yourself how truly, staggeringly outrageous the whole business is. It’s almost as if your head has to be got round it all over again, every single time you go there. I’m like that with the Post Office scandal, which as of this week is the subject of an active public inquiry.

In the spirit of rearranging our heads once more, let’s do the brief summary: between 2000 and 2014, 736 subpostmasters and postmistresses were prosecuted of theft, fraud and false accounting in the branches of the Post Office they ran. Their lives – and the lives of thousands of others – were torn apart. They were financially ruined, put out of work, locally shunned, driven into poor health and addiction, saw their marriages destroyed. Some – from a 19-year-old woman to mothers of young children to all manner of others – were imprisoned for many months. At least 33 victims of the scandal are now dead; at least four reportedly took their own lives. But … they had done nothing wrong. They had done nothing wrong. The blame in fact lay with Horizon, a faulty computer system designed by Fujitsu and imposed on their branches by Post Office management.

It is currently being described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British history. And here’s the kicker – many post office operators had been reporting problems with Horizon to the Post Office right from the outset. The Post Office not only failed to adequately investigate, but demanded the staff personally made up the financial shortfalls, and denied to the complainants that anyone else had similar issues. Up in the rarefied air of the executive suite was Paula Vennells, who took over as CEO in 2012. Under her leadership the Post Office prosecuted hundreds of subpostmasters. To this date, more than 20 years on for some cases, nobody from the Post Office or Fujitsu or the civil servants charged with oversight has been held accountable, much less faced criminal investigation themselves. Instead, victims’ heads have rolled.

So that’s the short version, but of course it all feels inadequate. Even simply listing every individual injustice in the sparsest possible terms would take far more space than I have available; at even cursory depth, every single story is utterly heartbreaking and utterly extraordinary. And to add to the sheer WTF-ery, these are subpostmasters we’re talking about, often working meticulously for long hours serving small communities. It’s backbone of Britain stuff – and the prison doors clanged shut on them.

Among other burning questions, then, the current inquiry will look at whether the Post Office bigwigs knew there were bugs and glitches in the computer system, but pushed ahead with the prosecuting and the life-ruining anyway. I don’t want to unleash too many spoilers here – it’s important that viewers get to experience the breakneck magic of a British public inquiry in real time – but let’s just say that a high court judge in 2019 described the Post Office’s approach as “the 21st-century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.

Other highlights of the story? You’ll enjoy the episode covering the bit where Post Office CEO Paula Vennells gets a CBE in the year 2019 (TWENTY NINETEEN), and then gets made both chair of London’s Imperial College Healthcare NHS trust and something called “a non-executive board member of the Cabinet Office”, presumably because the government thought it important to bring in our brightest brains from business. By way of an inspired satirical touch, Paula also moonlighted as an Anglican priest and as a member of the Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group. (She has since “stepped back” from these positions.) In 2019, after the Post Office agreed to pay nearly £58m to settle claims, Vennells issued a statement saying “I am truly sorry we were unable to find both a solution and a resolution outside of litigation and for the distress this caused.”

Ah. Students of apology types may have identified this as the classic sorry-that-we-just-HAD-to-hound-you-into-court apology. It’s a real pro move, and your inability to execute it is why you, an amateur, live in fear of losing your livelihood, while hotshots like Paula & Co take millions and get bumped up into first class on the gravy train, no matter how monstrous their screw-ups. For while the postmasters have gone through the sort of wringer that makes Kafka feel like a Disney musical, extraordinary compassion has been shown to the managerial class in all this, who have been showered with honours and directorships and bonuses throughout.

Elsewhere, it must be said that this sorry saga has not been the finest hour of much of the news media. Most papers and TV news outlets would now admit they horribly under-reported the Post Office story over the years, with all the running made by the likes of Private Eye, Computer Weekly and the BBC journalist Nick Wallis, to say nothing of the campaigning victims themselves, such as the heroic Alan Bates.

As for the wider lessons of the scandal, what a lot it says about a society crossing the threshold of the third millennium that thousands of entirely upstanding human beings were disbelieved in favour of trusting a computer. Actually believing in the confusion and anguish of that famously gangsterish demographic – British subpostmasters – was regarded as a wholly irrational act. This, I’m afraid, is a version of only following orders.

And it’s also, alas, the bit where those of us who cannot believe it happened simply have to look around us. Today, technology is deferred to even in the face of human tragedy far more than it was 20 years ago. Spool onward in the timeline and you will find more and more examples of ways in which technology was deemed to know best. In 2015, it emerged that in one three-year period, 2,380 sick and disabled people had died shortly after being declared “fit for work” by a computerised test, and having their sickness benefits withdrawn. Today, bereaved parents are told that nothing can be done about the algorithms that pushed their teenage children remorselessly in the direction of content they believe ultimately contributed to them taking their own lives, even as a Facebook whistleblower recently said that firm was “unwilling to accept even little slivers of profit being sacrificed for safety”. At the time the Post Office scandal began unfolding, Facebook wasn’t even a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye; now, many technology firms are more powerful than nation states. At the time, Little Britain’s Carol Beer worked as a bank teller or holiday rep; now, computer-says-no culture runs the world.

Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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