After nearly two years, the Post Office Horizon scandal public inquiry has received a surge in interest driven by the recent ITV drama and documentary, which told the story of the widest miscarriage of justice in UK history.
A packed hearing this week saw significantly increased numbers of journalists attend, with many new to the inquiry.
The Post Office scandal saw the Post Office blame thousands of subpostmasters for accounting shortfalls that were actually caused by the Post Office’s retail and accounting system, known as Horizon.
The losses didn’t exist in the real world, just on the computer system, but subpostmasters were forced to pay money to the Post Office to cover the phantom losses. Furthermore, although the Post Office knew the system lacked integrity, subpostmasters were prosecuted for crimes of dishonesty based on its data.
The software from Fujitsu was introduced to thousands of branches in 1999/2000, and subpostmasters began experiencing account shortfalls soon after installation.
Many suffered bankruptcy and thousands of lives were ruined, including more than 900 who were convicted of crimes such as theft and false accounting. Nearly 100 have so far had convictions overturned, and the government plans to legislate to overturn the rest in a blanket exoneration.
The public inquiry into the scandal has run for nearly two years and has shocked those who attend or tune in regularly, but an underwhelming number of mainstream media have written about its previous revelations, despite the gravity of what the Post Office has done to subpostmasters over the past 25 years.
Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, with the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered as a result of the Horizon system (see timeline of all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below).
But things changed at the very start of this year when ITV aired its drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office and an accompanying documentary about what has become known as the widest miscarriage of justice in UK history.
This week, as the inquiry resumed, the hearing room in central London was packed out with reporters from mainstream media as well as numerous former subpostmaster victims.
The resumption of phase four of the inquiry, which looks at the prosecution practices of the Post Office, saw former Post Office investigator Stephen Bradshaw, who still works for the Post Office, face the nation. Live coverage of the inquiry was broadcast by national TV news channels and newspaper websites for the first time.
Journalists new to the inquiry appeared shocked by the evidence they were hearing – an emotion experienced throughout the past two years by inquiry regulars. The media interest is an inevitable consequence of the drama and the government’s sudden urgency to try to put things right.
Just days after the final TV episode and the documentary telling the real story, the government leapt to action in the face of mounting pressure from a public similarly shocked by the events of the past two decades.
As a measure of the sudden public awareness of the treatment of subpostmasters, an online poll – which had existed for three years – calling for former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells to lose her CBE, went from under 4,000 signatures to well over a million in three days following the airing of the drama.
Furthermore, earlier this week, the government announced its unprecedented constitutional decision to push legislation through Parliament in a matter of weeks to quickly overturn the convictions of around 800 former subpostmasters and branch staff in a blanket exoneration.
Kevin Hollinrake, under-secretary of state at the Department for Business and Trade, denied that the drama forced the move, but admitted it has “accelerated existing plans”.
However, according to a letter revealed by campaigner Eleanor Shaikh, Hollinrake denied this was a possibility just two months ago. In the letter to one of the subpostmasters’ MP, chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt, Hollinrake said the government was unable to exonerate subpostmasters as a group.
“The courts’ processes are independent of government, as are the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and therefore I am unable to influence their approach in this matter,” he wrote.
Three of the affected subpostmasters were in attendance at the inquiry for the first hearing since the drama aired.
Mark Kelly, who ran a Post Office branch in Swansea and is a scandal victim, said: “I, and others, feel the drama was a great masterpiece that managed to cut through all technical jargon and focused on the basic and most important part of scandal.
“I didn’t expect the outpouring we have had, but people must have seen the human impact. Before, they just thought, ‘You’re bankrupt, that’s life’, and didn’t realise just how much the Post Office hounded us.”
Kelly had warned the Post Office about a Horizon bug, but was ignored.
Also attending the hearing was Janet Skinner, who was wrongly prosecuted and jailed after accounting shortfalls appeared in her branch accounts. She said the increased media attention is continuing to get more stories out to the public.
“With all the interest, it felt like the first day of the inquiry again,” she said. “The drama is just the tip of the iceberg.” Skinner had her wrongful conviction overturned in April 2021.
Jo Hamilton, a former subpostmaster who also had a wrongful conviction overturned, said the mainstream interest has emboldened the subpostmasters: “We feel now that people know we did nothing wrong. The story was told so well, through the drama, that people now know what we have been saying is true.” Hamilton was one of the main characters featured in the TV series.
But she added: “Although we are really pleased, there is still frustration that so many people have still not received any financial redress.”
Former subpostmaster Lee Castleton, who was bankrupted by the Post Office for daring to challenge the Horizon system over losses, said the drama has lifted his mood because of the huge wave of support: “The effects have surprised everyone. I just hope the momentum continues to allow a flurry to finish.”
Alan Bates, who set up and chairs the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, which includes all four of the victims quoted here, said: “I have had a lot of positive comments back from the group, which although many found it hard going to watch as it brought back the horrors of events in their lives, [they] are generally very pleased with it.”
He said that while everyone involved is surprised by the extent of the effect on the public, it is “no surprise that they have reacted the way they have, now that they know what has been going on”.
“I certainly hope that the current public interest drives the financial redress issue through ASAP, and I am sure that now the spotlight has raised the profile of all of this, the public will be watching and demanding government to get this sorted,” he added.
Also watch: ITV’s Post Office scandal documentary: The real story.
Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal.