ITV hit drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office has brought the story of hundreds of postmasters being wrongfully prosecuted as a result of the Horizon IT scandal to widespread public anger.
But journalists have been doggedly telling the stories of the victims of the scandal for more than a decade, with the starting gun fired by Computer Weekly in 2009.
More than 700 Post Office branch managers were given criminal convictions, with some jailed, between 1999 and 2015 after faulty Fujitsu accounting software called Horizon made it appear as though money was missing from their shops. To date, 93 of those convictions have been overturned and £24m paid out in compensation as a result. At least four suicides are thought to be linked to the scandal.
Now for the first time the Metropolitan Police is looking at “potential fraud offences” at the Post Office following the airing of the four-part drama starring actor Toby Jones as subpostmaster Alan Bates.
Computer Weekly has published about 350 stories since 2009 about Horizon, mostly by Karl Flinders. Seventy of these came before the end of 2018 and the rest followed afterwards as the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance brought a group action trial against the Post Office in 2018 and a public inquiry commenced in 2020, boosting interest and awareness in what happened.
“However nothing has compared to this dramatisation on ITV and documentary,” Flinders told Press Gazette on Monday. “It’s taken that… it’s extraordinary. It’s just gone crazy. It really has gone mad.”
First Computer Weekly investigation ‘initiated slow-burn chain of events’
A petition calling for former Post Office chief executive Paul Vennells to be stripped of her CBE crossed the one million signature mark on Monday. Flinders noted that the petition was launched about three years ago and had sat at the 4,000 mark for much of that time.
“It’s quite scary that it takes a TV drama to get people to listen to something as horrendous as this,” Flinders said. “The mainstream media was a bit slow to it because it was a bit risky and they probably thought it was a bit boring – computers and the Post Office.”
The first investigation into Horizon was published in 2009 by Computer Weekly after a year-long investigation by its reporter Rebecca Thomson. Although she left the trade publication soon afterwards, she has since returned to the story to cover the public inquiry which was established in 2020.
Thomson told The Times in 2022 that they had expected major follow-ups but little came: “It really did go out to a clanging silence. I was super-ambitious, and I was disappointed and a bit confused about the fact that there had been so little reaction to the story, because I still continue to feel like it was incredibly strong.”
Computer Weekly investigations editor Bill Goodwin wrote on Linkedin shortly afterwards that they had persisted through “bullying letters” from the Post Office demanding to know their sources but he said: “We ignored them. Reaction was muted when the story first appeared but it initiated a slow-burn chain of events that lead to the uncovering of a scandal of enormous proportions.”
Flinders, who took over the story from Thomson in 2010, and the Computer Weekly editorial team were highly commended at Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards in 2020 in the Technology Journalism category after the judges decided it deserved recognition for its “sustained investigation and campaigning” for more than a decade.
“This won justice for people who had been appallingly treated with many lives ruined. It turned a tech story into a major public interest campaign, showing the value of the B2B sector in the process,” the judges said.
Post Office ‘successfully dampened journalists’ interest in Horizon story’
Computer Weekly continued to develop the story for years but other publications produced notable coverage too: the BBC in Wales followed up the initial investigation while Private Eye, the BBC (including Panorama), the Yorkshire Post, The Times, the Daily Mail and more began to chip away at it in the years to come.
The Times, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Sunday Times, Express and Sun have together published hundreds of stories about the affair.
Freelance broadcast journalist Nick Wallis picked up the story early and told Press Gazette he is “delighted that this story is getting the traction it deserves and exposure it deserves” following the ITV drama, which went out on TV at the start of the New Year.
Wallis published the book The Great Post Office Scandal in 2021, has worked on three editions of BBC Panorama about the story as well as a BBC Radio 4 series The Great Post Office Trial, has crowdfunded his online reporting since 2018, and co-wrote a Private Eye report entitled Justice Lost in the Post in 2020. As a result of his work Wallis is now also a trustee for the Horizon Scandal Fund, which disperses money to those in need as many victims have not had proper compensation.
Broadcaster and Labour peer Joan Bakewell summed up the confusion of some about why more had not been done in response to the scandal in a tweet on Monday. She said: “I have [a] copy of The Great Post Office Scandal by Nick Wallis… published in 2021!!! … the total story!! Why no enquiry then? What kept them? ..answers are needed!!”
Wallis suggested it had not got more attention previously because it is “quite a complicated story” and the Post Office “successfully managed to dampen down interest in the story” by allegedly calling up editors to tell them their journalists had got the story wrong (when in fact it was accurate reporting).
Update: BBC News has published a story asserting that the Post Office threatened to sue Panorama in the run-up to its first film in 2015 and that its PR boss “escalated complaints to ever more senior BBC managers”. BBC News also said the Post Office wrongly briefed its editors, spreading “misinformation”, and about the Horizon system and sent intimidating letters to experts about their participation in the Panorama programme. The BBC said the Post Office’s “false claims” did not stop the programme but did delay it by several weeks.
The Post Office declined to comment for this story.
Wallis added that he believed many people would have been aware of the Court of Appeal judgment on 23 April 2021 that quashed the convictions of 39 postmasters. “But of course it’s a sort of blink-and-you-miss-it kind of story. It was an on-the-day news story. People weren’t aware of the underlying human misery which had led to that point and I think that’s the power of the [ITV] drama. It gives that empathy to individual subpostmaster stories very skilfully in my view.”
Wallis was a series consultant on Mr Bates vs The Post Office so admitted he was biased, but said he was “blown away by what they’ve achieved. It is quite extraordinary. There are a lot of things that could have gone wrong and made it land quite badly. But it landed perfectly at the perfect time, when there was clearly a public appetite for it.”
Both Wallis and Flinders stressed to Press Gazette that Bates and his fellow postmasters and campaigners played the biggest role in securing justice. As Wallis said: “The journalists have just told the story. But what journalism does – and TV dramas and factual TV dramas – what the media is able to do is shine a huge spotlight on an injustice or a compelling story, which galvanises the public and forces politicians to do something…”
Computer Weekly’s Flinders said he “would never want to take anything away from Alan Bates particularly and the subpostmasters” but that journalism played an important role.
For example, he said, the Post Office had always told the afflicted postmasters that they were the only ones seeing errors, meaning many of them discovered for the first time that this was not true by reading the stories of other whistleblowers in Computer Weekly.
One postmaster was alerted when a regular customer came in and put a copy of the magazine down on the desk and said: “You’re not the only one having problems.”
However, Flinders remains “really frustrated” for the victims who have suffered. “Some of them still haven’t had any compensation. Some of them really haven’t got any money… mental health issues, it’s absolutely horrendous.”
He added: “This is the kind of story you want to work on when you become a journalist. I couldn’t imagine a bigger story that I could possibly work on. But you can’t celebrate something like this because it’s quite harrowing when you hear stories of people who have killed themselves… are mentally ill, it’s absolutely horrendous. But I’m sort of pleased people realise what happened.”
Post Office Horizon IT scandal: Timeline of journalism
Subpostmaster Alan Bates first contacts Computer Weekly’s Tony Collins, known for his investigation into the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994 that may have been caused by software problems. Collins is interested but can’t do much with only one source.
A second subpostmaster, Lee Castleton, contacts Collins at Computer Weekly, sparking an investigation.
Computer Weekly’s Rebecca Thomson publishes the first investigation exposing what was going on, with seven subpostmasters. But there is not much response to the story – other than a follow-up by BBC Wales Today and BBC journalists working for S4C Welsh-language current affairs programme Taro Naw, prompted by recognising the name of a local councillor in the Computer Weekly article.
Thomson leaves Computer Weekly and Karl Flinders takes over the story and gets in touch with Alan Bates. “It was a case of trying to write about it as much as we could,” he says. He continues to plug away at the story, is contacted by more and more subpostmasters, and receives flat denials from the Post Office each time.
Computer Weekly ultimately publishes about 350 stories by Jan 2024 – 70 up until the end of 2018, and the rest after that as momentum builds.
BBC South and BBC Surrey investigation led by freelance broadcast journalist Nick Wallis airs. Wallis had been contacted by a taxi driver whose wife was one of the wrongfully convicted postmasters.
Also in 2011: the first Private Eye piece about Horizon, written by staff journalist Richard Brooks who continued to follow the story.
Wallis highlights Horizon on BBC One flagship programme The One Show soon after it was described as a “national scandal” in a Parliamentary debate.
Neil Tweedie at the Daily Mail publishes a detailed report to a mass audience: “Decent lives destroyed by the Post Office: The monstrous injustice of scores of sub-postmasters driven to ruin or suicide when computers were really to blame.”
The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance reaches the High Court with their group action trial against the Post Office. Flinders characterised this as the first time there was widespread coverage of the story in national media.
Wallis, who had by this point fronted several more investigations on the subject for the BBC, crowdfunds his presence in court, raising more than £9,000 and publishing his reports for free at postofficetrial.com. He told Press Gazette at the time: “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.”
Private Eye’s Justice Lost in the Post special report by Richard Brooks and Nick Wallis is published.
BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 documentary Second Class Citizens: The Post Office IT Scandal airs, as does BBC Radio 4 series The Great Post Office Trial and second Panorama programme Scandal at the Post Office.
Nick Wallis book The Great Post Office Scandal is published.
Yorkshire Post exclusively asks Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey about he could have done more about the issues when he was postal affairs minister from 2010 to 2012. The interview later re-emerged as Davey went on the media circuit following the ITV drama’s broadcast.
Daily Mail business editor Tom Witherow, who later continues reporting on the scandal for The Times, lands a major newspaper front page for the scandal: “33 die without justice in Post Office scandal.”
Yorkshire Post opinion editor Tom Richmond declares the scandal lends itself to a comparison with Putin’s Russia because of the use of the Officials Secret Act against innocent postmasters.
Wallis and Thomson begin podcast series Investigating the Post Office Scandal.
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