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Post Office scandal highlights an unlikely victim

Toby Jones stars as Alan Bates in the ITV Drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office - picture courtesy ITV


A great deal has been written and said since last week’s ITV drama Mr Bates v The Post Office was broadcast. One point which has been made frequently is that the scandal could not have happened in the age of social media. Campaign groups like the one started by wronged sub postmaster Alan Bates would have flourished online and quickly given the lie to the Post Office’s false claim that he was the only person having problems reconciling accounts using the new Horizon system.

It has also been commented that the mainstream media was slow to pick up on the scale of the scandal, with most of the heavy investigative lifting in the early days being done by Computer Weekly and Private Eye. It is undoubtedly true those publications opened the can of worms and have doggedly pursued it for the last 15 years.

There is a missing element in this saga which I think stands as a stark reminder of what this country has lost in terms of civic standards and public awareness, and that is the role of local newspapers.

In the early 2000s at the time the Post Office started prosecuting sub-postmasters and mistresses for alleged false accounting, local papers were in a period of sharp decline, a process which has continued unabated for the past 20 years. Consequently court coverage was sketchy with many titles relying on the Post Office press release to give a very one-sided account of events.

A memorable scene in the ITV drama made much of the extraordinary events surrounding the prosecution of sub-postmistress Jo Hamilton from South Warnborough in Hampshire. Her ‘debt’ to the Post Office was paid off by local supporters many of whom accompanied her to court much to the amazement of the judge, who questioned why she had pleaded guilty to false accounting when so many people clearly thought she was innocent.

An event like that would and should have been front page news in any self-respecting  local paper, if only they had the staff to cover criminal courts.

Around the time Mrs Hamilton was being prosecuted, multiple simultaneous legal proceedings were ongoing all around the country. It took Computer Weekly to join the dots and publish its first article in 2009 – nine years after Horizon was first rolled out.

I don’t think this huge story about something so fundamental to so many different communities up and down the country would have gone unreported for so long if we still had a fully functioning local newspaper industry.

Casting my mind back to my first job at The Northern Echo newspaper, which had multiple reporters covering a patch from Newcastle to York, a story of sub-post masters being serially investigated for theft and false accounting would have set alarm bells ringing. Why were these cases happening simultaneously? Why had sub-postmasters suddenly transformed from pillars of their local communities to common thieves? What was the other side of the story that wasn’t in the Post Office press release?

I certainly hope we would have asked those questions and senior colleagues on the newsdesk would have spotted the region wide pattern and given reporters time and instructions to talk to those who had been accused.

Even now that the story is receiving wall to wall nationwide coverage, where are the stories of the 600 sub-postmasters and postmistresses who have received criminal convictions which have not yet been overturned? Again a thriving local media would have been filled with these case studies – campaigning on behalf of wronged individuals and leaning on MPs to make the Government take action.

Congratulations are undoubtedly due to ITV for making the drama which has made this long-running saga front page news, but are we happy that it takes a docudrama to reach people for whom the news media is no longer relevant? Local journalists were not always popular – in fact the best ones could often be very unpopular – but they served their readers well and shone lights where nowadays there is too much darkness.

In an era when even the Hull Daily Mail cannot afford to employ its own rugby league reporter, the prospects for a local media recovery seem remote. But the continuing story of Mr Bates versus The Post Office has highlighted another issue which leaves the underdogs and the voiceless at a major disadvantage when pitted against corporate and establishment power and wealth.

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1 Comment

Nigel Cassidy
Nigel Cassidy
Jan 10

Heartily agree. Post BBC, before moving more into a bit of podcasting and freelance writing, I considered venturing back into local journalism to try and fill the yawning gap left by the effective demise of the paper where I learnt my craft. Reluctantly, my conclusion was that I would end up working 60 hours a week unpaid, creating engaging stories and holding local authority to account. Certainly, hyper local platforms and business models already exist, but monetising them has proved difficult to impossible, perhaps because we remain in a minority and not enough people value this lost content sufficiently. Can only hope as more people work from home, interest within communities might spur some new developments.

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