The Great Post Office Scandal
Ray Snoddy hails the dogged determination of journalist, Nick Wallis in ensuring that the scandal enveloping the Post Office reached mainstream press attention and calls for the continuation of reporting on stories that may otherwise get swept under the carpet
In the middle of a pandemic, with the distractions of Boris Johnson's government, the impacts of leaving the EU and a focus on climate change, it is almost inevitable that many important stories are almost missed, or at the very least downplayed.
There is a hierarchy of news and particularly, with live broadcasting there is only so much space, and anyway the news caravan moves on - ever restless.
One such story that deserves much greater attention, and the role of journalists in exposing it, is the 'Great Post Office Scandal,' which has been rumbling away for much of the current century.
The dramatic peaks have of course been covered extensively, such as the legal denouement in the Appeal Court, when 39 sub-postmasters were finally acquitted of stealing significant amounts from their own post office branches.
But that is only part of a story that has been called the greatest miscarriage of justice in modern times, although it would stand out as monstrous in almost any times.
Looking back now, it is difficult to imagine how such a thing could have happened.
Over a period of 14 years, as many as 2,000 sub-postmasters - many of them pillars of their local society - apparently, were complicit in monies disappearing randomly from their computerised tills.
The fact that this remarkable phenomenon in the annals of criminology coincided with the introduction of a new computer system was somehow missed at the Post Office, even though there is a long and sorry history of failed computer systems in the public sector wasting billions of pounds.
Uniquely for the Post Office, the organisation believed its Fujitsu Horizon system was without fault and that the only possible explanation for the widespread discrepancies was theft.
No-one at the Post Office seemed to worry that money was disappearing randomly, sometimes when sub-postmasters didn't even have access to the system or indeed that there was evidence of multiple bugs in the system.
The perfect scandal was enabled by the fact that the Post Office was able to launch private prosecutions and force repayments of the missing money directly.
The organisation wickedly told each individual that only they were experiencing problems so there couldn’t be anything wrong with the system.
Across three governments responsible, ministers did virtually nothing - perhaps out of misguided respect for the autonomy of the Post Office.
So it was that over the years, there were 736 prosecutions, based exclusively on computer records from a deeply flawed system, with many more losing their jobs and being forced into bankruptcy.
One sub-postmaster, Martin Griffiths, committed suicide by walking out in-front of an oncoming bus at the age of 59.
The Law Society Gazette has even asked what were lawyers doing while this was going on?
The sub-postmasters did in the end help themselves by setting up an alliance and eventually getting legal help from a no win-no fee law firm.
It is difficult to see however, how they could have broken through without the help of the media as a whole, which eventually combined to expose the scandal.
It is an almost classic example of the trickle-up effect of the work of small publications and individual dogged journalists, eventually being picked up by broadcasters and the national press until, eventually, some might argue rather belatedly, a scandal is exposed in all its inarguable horror.
In this case, there were early stories in Computer Weekly, Private Eye and the BBC, followed by a decade of work by freelance investigative journalist Nick Wallis (pictured), with the help of crowd-funding.
In fact, Wallis was the journalistic key to the exposure (having originally brought the story to the attention Private Eye) and he stands as a tribute to what one apparently powerless journalist can achieve with enough determination.
Wallis went on to help with a Private Eye special and produced two Panorama editions that steered the scandal into the mainstream consciousness, while papers such as the Daily Mail campaigned on behalf of the sub-postmasters.
Wallis recently presented a ten-day series on Radio 4 on the story and his book The Great Post Office Scandal will be published this October.
There is still a lot for the media to do to ensure that such a thing never happens again.
The next campaign should be for a full judicial inquiry of what happened at such an apparently respectable institution as the Post Office, run by a part-time vicar.
An inquiry has already begun but it does not have the power to compel witnesses to attend and ominously, Prime Minister Johnson has said the aim should be to learn lessons rather than, implicitly, apportioning blame.
This may be a foretaste of what could be the Johnson approach to an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic in the UK - if such an inquiry is ever held.
The media should now be campaigning for proper compensation for all the reputations destroyed and lives ruined. Most of the compensation so far awarded has been eaten up by legal fees.
There should also be a sustained campaign to hold those responsible to account and see whether those who were so happy to prosecute others should not now face prosecution themselves.
As well as being an object lessons in how the massed ranks of the media can eventually help in overturning egregious injustices, it also should be a spur to further action.
There are many targets in plain sight to choose from.
They include doing a better job at explaining why last year, the UK had one of the highest Covid-19 death rates in the world - higher even than India now - and who was responsible?
Just as important, although not a direct cause of death, the repeated inaccuracies - to use a permissible Parliamentary term- of Boris Johnson in the House of Commons.
There are factual, irrefutable examples of Johnson failing to correct inaccuracies delivered from the Dispatch Box. They involve breeches to the Ministerial Code and in normal times that should lead to resignation.
There are dogged individual champions on this issue- the equivalent of Nick Wallis.
Peter Oborne has detailed the Johnson falsehoods in his book The Assault on Truth.
Peter Stefanovic has made a short film showing Johnson “breaking the Ministerial Code over and over.”
It has been viewed more than 15 million times on the internet but never shown by any UK broadcaster.
Perhaps it's time to emulate the progression of the Post Office scandal from niche to mainstream reporting and set aside the normal customs and protocols of broadcasting to deal with the indisputable scandal of a Prime Minister repeatedly breaching Ministerial Codes.