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September 14, 2018

Journalist crowdfunds £6,000 in nine days to cover month-long ‘public interest’ Post Office group action trial

By Charlotte Tobitt

A journalist who decided to crowdfund coverage of an upcoming group action trial against the Post Office was “amazed” to have doubled his original funding target in just nine days.

Nick Wallis, a freelance broadcast journalist of 14 years, has raised £6,000 through crowdfunding website Kickstarter to cover the trial, expected to last 20 days at the High Court in November.

Hundreds of former subpostmasters claim the Post Office wrongly blamed them for alleged shortfalls in branch accounts since its roll out of the Horizon computer system.

Some members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance have said the Post Office suspended or terminated them or induced their resignations for a reason relating to alleged shortfalls in their branch accounts, while some claim it pursued civil, bankruptcy or criminal proceedings against them.

Wallis has already fronted several investigations on the subject for the BBC, covering parliamentary debates, a select committee inquiry and an ongoing review by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Explaining why he decided to crowdfund coverage of the trial, Wallis told Press Gazette: “I’ve been following the story since 2010 and so I’ve got quite a significant interest, personal interest I think, in the outcome of this trial,

“Being a freelance journalist I knew that there was no way I’d be able to persuade a news editor necessarily to send me to every single day of the trial, because even with really big criminal trials it’s very rare to have a broadcast journalist sitting there for every day of it.

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“So I thought how can I make sure a) I get a ringside seat on this and b) that everything that happens in the trial is faithfully reported and made a matter of public record because there’s obviously no guarantee that on a trial like this that even an agency would necessarily send along a court reporter for every single day of it.”

Wallis plans to tweet updates and report throughout the trial via his blog, which will be openly available to read – not just to backers of the Kickstarter campaign.

Nick Wallis’s Post Office trial logo for his Kickstarter page. Picture: Tim Wilson Design

Wallis was inspired by Peter Jukes’s crowdfunding for his livetweeting of the phone-hacking trial in 2013 to 2014, for which he raised around £20,000 through two Indiegogo appeals.

Asked why it is so important to cover the trial, Wallis said: “If the Post Office is in some way responsible for taking action which leads to people being sacked, suspended, criminalised or thrown in prison, then that is a story that should be told.

“Furthermore, this trial could potentially cost the Post Office tens of millions of pounds in damages if they are held liable by the judge, and that’s taxpayers’ money which has therefore some kind of public interest element which I imagine, should it happen, will be picked up by quite a few people.”

Wallis said he knew he wanted to attend the trial but that “I can’t just take a month off”.

He has spoken to a number of national news editors about commissioning stories but said they “couldn’t commit resources to report proceedings when they didn’t know what was going to come out of the trial”.

“It’s a bit chicken and egg. If there is no one in court reporting what’s going on, nothing will come out of the trial.”

The success of the crowdfunding page surpassed Wallis’s expectations, reaching his original target of £3,000 in just four days. It remains live for another month.

He said: “I thought I’d launch quietly over the weekend, test all the links and then start pushing it on the Monday.

“By the time I’d woken up on Saturday morning, more than £1,000 had been pledged. I had fully expected to spend the days leading up to 15 October scrabbling around for cash. I was astonished.”

Extra funds raised will be used to carry out additional journalistic activity around the trial, including profiling and interviewing some of the key participants.

Sharing advice to journalists considering crowdfunding their work in future, Wallis advised them to first think about “who is likely to want to back it” and how to reach those people, and to choose their platform carefully because “they all have their different little quirks or foibles”.

When the group litigation order was approved by the High Court last year, the Post Office said it “welcomes” the case as “offering the best opportunity for the matters in dispute to be heard and resolved”.

It added: “We will not otherwise comment on litigation while it is ongoing.

“We continue to have confidence in the Horizon system, which has around 78,000 users across 11,600 branches nationwide to process six million transactions a day.”

The Kickstarter page can be found here.

Main picture: Jenny Smith

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