More than 700 people convicted of a crime they did not commit. At least four suicides. A woman sent to prison during pregnancy. Bankruptcies. Broken marriages, ruined lives.
The shocking details of one of worst miscarriages of justice in British history it was reported for years, but remained somehow unnoticed by most of the public, despite the intense efforts of campaigners and investigative journalists.
Until last week. A gripping ITV drama series, “Mr Bates v the Post Office”, which began broadcast on January 1, has achieved something that has eluded politicians for a decade, clearing a quagmire of bureaucratic and legal delays and by forcing the government to act.
The show dramatizes the plight of hundreds of people who ran Post Office branches across Britain who were wrongly accused of theft after a faulty computer system called Horizon created false gaps in their accounts.
Between 1999 and 2015, they were relentlessly pursued in court by the Post Office for financial losses that never occurred. Some were imprisoned, most faced financial hardship, many suffered mental health problems, and some committed suicide.
Under pressure, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday promised a new law to exonerate and compensate all known victims, a radical intervention that aims to finally deliver justice after years of glacial progress.
And police suddenly said last week that they would investigate whether Post Office officials — who for years refused to admit that the IT managers they forced to use were at fault — should face accusations. Meanwhile, one of her former bosses, Paula Vennells, returned an honor bestowed by the Queen in 2019, after more than a million people signed a petition demanding that she be stripped of it.
All of which raises an intriguing question: How did a television show manage to do more in one week than investigative journalists and politicians did in over a decade?
“As brilliant as journalism is, it may appeal to your intellect, to your head,” said Gwyneth Hughes, the author of “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office.” “While theater is designed to please your heart, that’s what it has done for thousands of years.”
Mattias Frey, professor of media at City of London, argued that the drama shows the continuing power of terrestrial television to change public perceptions and generate “one of those moments of old-fashioned freshness” that fuels a broader public debate.
Even the show’s executive producer, Patrick Spence, was surprised by the magnitude of the reaction. Before the show aired, he told his team that they shouldn’t be discouraged if the ratings were modest, given the competition for eyeballs.
The day after the series debuted, he was informed by a colleague that more than 3.5 million people had watched the first episode. “I thought I heard her wrong,” Mr. Spence said. Nine million people have now seen the series, according to ITV.
He believes the series has inadvertently become a state-of-the-nation drama, articulating “a bigger truth, which is that we don’t feel heard and we don’t trust the people who are supposed to support us.” .
The affair is all the more shocking given that the Post Office is an institution embedded in the fabric of British life, more accustomed to being portrayed in an innocuous role such as in the popular children’s television show, “Pat the postman.”
An official investigation into the scandal was launched in 2020, and more than £148 million, or more than $188 million, has already been distributed to victims through compensation programs. In 2019, 555 branch managers successfully challenged the Post Office in the High Court.
Despite this, of the 700 criminal convictions, only 93 have been overturned so far, a slow pace that has fueled activists’ anger.
Since the ITV drama aired, more victims have come forward, but dozens more people died before you can receive compensation. When Horizon declared branch accounts to be in deficit, managers were contractually obligated to make up the deficits.
Some paid from their own savings to avoid prosecution, even though they were sure they had done nothing wrong. Others pleaded guilty to minor crimes to avoid prison, even though they were innocent.
One victim, Lee Castleton, whose fate was mentioned in the drama, told BBC that his Horizon account would suddenly go from profit to loss and that more than 90 calls to a helpline proved futile. The Post Office, he said, was “absolutely determined” not to help him.
As news of his alleged wrongdoing filtered through the community, Mr. Castleton and his family were accused of street theft, his daughter was bullied at school and she developed a mental disorder. food. Forced to travel far away to look for work, he slept in his car.
Stories like these form the beating heart of “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office,” the fruit of three years of work. The truth of what happened was “unbelievable,” said Ms. Hughes, the show’s writer. “If I wrote these things fictionally, no one would believe me, people would tune out.”
The heroic Mr. Bates, played by Toby Jones, is portrayed as an even-tempered and tireless character who, like other victims, was told by the Post Office to be the only person to report problems with Horizon.
He found others, assembled a group of victims, and pursued their cases with meager resources, battling through a succession of failures to achieve an extraordinary victory in court.
“Everyone loves underdogs, and we had them in spades,” Ms. Hughes said, adding that Mr. Bates might look like a bearded, mild-mannered fan of real ale, but he was also “a terrier ; “He is wise, he is intelligent, he is very good at planning for the long term.”
“He is, in a way, a gift as a character, he has a complexity: comes the hour, comes the man,” she said. “He led this long march of the misunderstood and unknown, and kept his sense of humor.”
A few politicians were allied to the victims’ cause, including James Arbuthnot, a Conservative lawmaker (now in the House of Lords) who fought on behalf of a constituent wrongly accused of stealing £36,000.
There is also a cameo role for another Tory lawmaker, Nadhim Zahawi, who played himself in the drama, questioning Ms Vennells, the former Post Office boss, during a parliamentary committee hearing.
To viewers, Ms Vennells appears as the stubborn face of the Post Office, someone determined to defend its reputation rather than engage with its victims, a stance made all the more surprising given that she is an ordained Anglican priest (even if she has withdrawn from any major role). in the church in 2021).
Fujitsu, the Japanese company that developed the Horizon system, is also under increasing pressure, with politicians hoping to recoup some of the costs of compensating victims from the company, which has yet to worth billions of pounds contracts with the British government.
Professor Frey fears viewers have seen a “simple David and Goliath story” while lawyers and politicians must grapple with something more complicated. He sees the risk that “the pressure that should be put on politicians to clean up this mess may come in an undifferentiated way.”
Ms Hughes is also concerned about this. “I hope they do the right thing by all our lovely sub-postmasters, but I also hope they find a way to do it that doesn’t cause additional problems in the future” , she said. “Thank God it’s not my job.”