2024 has certainly kicked off with an unexpected bang with an outpouring of outrage over the Post Office Horizon scandal. We’ve seen daily revelations and news headlines ever since the story was catapulted into the public consciousness by the ITV drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office.
It is difficult to believe that no one inside the Post Office, nor inside Fujitsu, suspected that a miscarriage of justice was occurring way before the story came out in the press. What was happening inside those organisations – were whistleblowers coming forward but not listened to or was the culture not conducive to speaking up?
Eventually it was a whistleblower who helped uncover the story, but his vital evidence was given to the press, rather than an industry or regulatory body. Richard Roll, who worked for the company at the heart of the scandal, Fujitsu, was featured in a BBC Panorama documentary in 2015 that exposed the truth and lead to the successful postmasters’ legal case in 2019.
But we have learnt that significant attempts were made to silence this evidence and keep a lid on the scandal – and the Panorama programme itself was delayed while BBC bosses dealt with numerous threats of legal action. This was a public interest issue directly affecting thousands of people in a government-owned institution.
It is legal threats of this kind made to the media that make a mockery of our justice system. Whistleblowers are critical to the rule of law and upholding democracy. Where you have human beings, you will have people who do the wrong thing, and where you have power you will find people and institutions who abuse it. The most powerful deterrents to this abuse are whistleblowers, whether in financial services, the NHS, or big business. Whistleblowers do absolutely crucial work to expose abuse and ensure accountability.
The Post Office Horizon scandal is one of Britain’s biggest miscarriages of justice and saw more than 700 Post Office branch managers convicted, and many jailed, after a faulty accounting computer system made it look as if money was missing from their branches.
So far, out of the thousands of post office managers affected, only 93 have had their convictions quashed. Many say they have lost faith in the legal system or are too traumatised by their experiences to re-engage with the process. However, since the broadcast of the ITV drama and the mounting media campaign the government has now announced that new legislation is being fast-tracked to exonerate all sub-postmasters who were wrongly convicted amid the scandal. An independent public inquiry into the scandal started in 2022 and is expected to conclude this summer.
1) Today, the PM and I announced legislation that will mean postmasters wrongfully convicted as a result of the #HorizonScandal will be fully exonerated.
Once introduced, this will deliver justice by clearing names – and ensure victims can get compensated swiftly 👉…
— Kevin Hollinrake MP (@kevinhollinrake) January 10, 2024
The power of drama
But how, after so many years of headlines and more than two decades of injustice did a Christmas holiday TV drama propel the plight of hundreds of sub-postmasters to the top of the political agenda? How did a catalogue of previous radio and television documentaries, hundreds of articles and the ongoing public inquiry fail to create cut-through? It’s not that journalists haven’t been trying for more than a decade, with Computer Weekly breaking the story in 2009.
Sadly, stories can bubble along for months, and even years, without making serious impact and whistleblower stories don’t always capture the public imagination. Frustratingly it takes an outlandish step, like a celebrity intervention or a four-part TV series, to gain traction and lead to significant change. The ITV drama came in the post-Christmas/New Year lull, often a time when people have more downtime, are not altogether back to work, and still have an appetite for watching television. The programme also hit during a relatively quiet news period, the Israel-Gaza war not withstanding, there were fewer significant domestic stories competing for attention. And with such powerful storytelling which elevated the emotional aspect of the sub-postmasters’ experiences the story was a perfect David versus Goliath scenario, siding with the underdog tale that appeals and resonates with the British public.
Standards on employers
As much as it’s been called an IT scandal, it was human beings who made the decisions: people who must have sensed something was wrong, and either never asked questions, or were too afraid to say something. A scandal like this can only occur when people who notice something isn’t right don’t speak up. Organisations must recognise the value of listening to their workers and create an environment that encourages and protects those who speak up. This scandal shows, more than anything else, that we need better governance and accountability. It is the governance failure at the heart of the Post Office, and from the ministers responsible, that is particularly worrying. Mistakes are bound to happen but when there is no system to ensure that they are discovered and investigated, and instead are covered up, that turn them into catastrophes. We must adopt legal standards on employers to have robust and independent whistleblowing systems, otherwise there is nothing to say that this couldn’t happen again, or is actually happening now in 2024 in another industry.
It’s also important to ensure that everyone enjoys the protection of the law in their workplace. Most people would think of sub-postmasters as Post Office employees but might be surprised to know that as they are technically ‘self-employed’, and so not entitled to employment law protections. This is a clear barrier to justice, meaning that these individuals are not protected when raising concerns about illegality or other wrongdoing. Sub-postmasters are just one example of self-employed workers who deserve to have greater rights when speaking up in the workplace. Legal whistleblowing protections must be expanded to cover everyone in the workplace – a key pillar of our campaign to fix whistleblowing law.
We mustn’t forget that this scandal only came to light due to the persistent efforts of Alan Bates and the group of sub-postmasters, journalists, MPs, and a whistleblowing engineer at Fujitsu. It is the insiders within organisations who have the power to expose wrongdoing and improve business, and society, for the better.