Opinion

Mr Bates vs The Post Office and the primetime push for justice

Despite years of investigative journalism, it was down to a TV show to achieve what all the other campaigning couldn't

Toby Jones in Mr Bates vs The Post Office

Toby Jones in Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Image: ITV

Perhaps the secret will be Toby Jones. When there is injustice and inequity and corporate cover-up on a massive scale, or rather a need to show how vested interests circle the wagons and see the little man as collateral damage, it’ll be Toby Jones time. 

It is certain that Mr Bates vs The Post Office, the ITV drama starring Jones about the cruel, shameful destruction of lives and prosecution of hundreds of sub-post masters and mistresses due to a faulty IT system, has changed government policy. Rishi Sunak would not have stood in the Commons declaring a change in the law and a new compensation package for those innocent people whose lives were ruined without the show and the subsequent public fury.

It is worth repeating the numbers. Between 2000 and 2015 the Post Office prosecuted and saw convictions of 736 sub-postmasters. The knowledge that there were issues with the Horizon platform was known for years but minimised then denied. Long snaking tendrils link those at senior level with senior politicians.

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It is clear this TV show has done what a lot of other campaigning couldn’t – it has brought about a democratisation of injustice in order to right it. Rather than thin lanes and closed holloways of stories told but contained, here it is, primetime anger, unlocked and unifying. The Westminster coda came just days after the show was broadcast, the kind of speedy outcome normally reserved for TV drama rather than real life.

There are ongoing questions about why more wasn’t done to investigate and fight for justice. But this is moot. Various publications, including Private Eye and Computer Weekly, led the fight and the fury. This brought a quashing of some convictions. Knowledge that the Horizon system was at fault has been so clear that a statutory inquiry into what happened has been running for just shy of two years.

It hasn’t been plain sailing. If you haven’t followed the inquiry – and it seems, given their sudden keenness to be shown to DO SOMETHING in an election year the government haven’t – you can find many details in places like The Justice Gap, an online magazine, covering justice and injustice. As recently as November, they detailed how the inquiry was facing delays due to Post Office manoeuvres.

The Post Office had either yet to disclose documents or chose to disclose thousands at once without enough time for witnesses to review them. The disclosure element around knowledge of Horizon’s problems, which then led to convictions, is becoming a recurring issue.

Quite recently at that inquiry a barrister called Warwick Tatford appeared. He had prosecuted two sub-postmasters as part of the legal action. “I feel ashamed that I was part of this,” he said.

It is positive that a major shift has come for those innocently convicted. But under normal circumstances, when miscarriages happen, it either takes masses of time or some sort of huge external intervention to right horrendous wrongs. 

Andrew Malkinson served 17 years in jail for a rape he did not commit. He was released last July after the Court of Appeal heard about new evidence linking a different suspect to the crime. Greater Manchester Police had had the evidence which exonerated Malkinson for a long time and it took Malkinson’s team going to court twice to force the police to hand over the evidence they held. There will be an inquiry, but witnesses will not be compelled to attend.

And so the sense remains that big institutions will always close ranks to protect themselves while those wronged are destroyed.

So, more power to the dogged journalists and TV makers and campaigning lawyers and those who attend inquiries day in and day out to bring the truth. 

Let’s see if convictions for those really guilty follow and justice is served.

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter.

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