The Great Post Office Scandal

Article published in Enquirer, April 2023 Edition, Page 8

The story of the fight to expose a multimillion-pound IT disaster which put innocent people in jail.

I’m not a big fan of the conspiracy theory. I see too much state-sponsored evil in my day job defending taxpayers against retrospective legislation so beloved of the populist far right and far left (until it happens to them). One of the most intelligent people I know still believes in the steal; won’t have a word against it.

My reading of The Great Post Office Scandal had at its routes in selfish motives or more charitably perhaps legitimate exploitation of the suffering of others in the pursuit of artistic relevance. I try hard enough. Let’s settle for a bit of both. I read it sufficiently to have a  view by the time we next sent out a LinkedIn comment along the lines: The post office scandal is an exemplary expose – the very best investigative journalism.

The comments were in the context of acknowledging a tendency to “hack on about not trusting the state”, but compared to the grey area of tax fraud defence, the sub postmasters were treated far more shabbily. Surely the buck stops with the chief executive in any organization but in one of the myriad case studies that eddy Nick Wallis’ well-researched tome Paula Vennels has granted herself absolution. It isn’t the purpose of this article to call out individuals but like most clichés the phrase “fishes rot from the head” rings true (to use a cliché). If you fancy making yourself angry visit the website:

or better, buy the book.

To oversimplify the plot for the purposes of this article, the essence of the story is that the Horizons software taken over and promoted by Fujitsu had a bug which occasionally caused banking analysis errors which themselves implied that money had gone missing when it hadn’t. Sub postmasters were badly let down by their head office managers who bought into the party line, while denying there was a party line, lying through their teeth saying each occurrence was unique. Sub postmasters were faced wit h the choice of being found guilty of fraud or pleading guilty to false accounting which carried a lessor sentence or so they were persuaded.

There are few parallels. Institutional malaise in other organizations rarely match the combination of complacency, collusion and corruption that The Great Post Office Scandal unpeels relentlessly.  The seismic implication of the whole disgraceful episode dwarfs individual culpability, a truly dark evolution of synergy. There are echoes of Dreyfus. The army couldn’t be wrong. It was better an innocent many languish on Devil’s Island. One suspects that the post office auditors who have remained in their roles still think they were loyal post office lifers protecting a nineteenth century icon struggling to justify itself in a digital era and where the private sector seems to be winning the war of delivery logistics. Coincidentally of course Dreyfus is a nineteenth century scandal. What could match the Post Office scandal in modern Britain. Ripping the children from their unmarried mothers’ breasts? Depriving asylum seekers their right to seek citizenship for life? Easy tiger, this is a business article not a left-leaning rand.

My remark brought over 4,000 hits to my relatively peaceful home pages. The Great Post Office Scandal’s reverberations brought forth many local anecdotes amongst particularly provincial friends who saw an already struggling centre of the local economy crushed under the threat of the Horizons/Fujitsu/GPO juggernaut. Like the Battle of Towton, supposedly the bloodiest battle on British soil, the Great Post Office Scandal will reverberate down the ages.

There are any number of morals to this tragedy but philosophically and structurally what Nick Wallis does so successfully is to work from the grass routes up. He starts with one sub postmaster’s story and builds a street view reality like Max Hastings or Ben Mackintyre. The result is the Kafkaesque toxicity of a corrupt system poorly regulated by managers and their auditors cowed into collusion.

The scandal is that so many of the wrongdoers are still in jobs. No one has been prosecuted for the blatant crimes that destroyed lives. The Post Office and their government masters just wish the whole thing……unbelievable but all too true.

© Doug Shanks

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