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Mr Bates vs The Press?

“There had always been limited public awareness of this scandal. Without sustained public interest, no news editor, no matter how much they liked me or the story, was going to pay.” 

These are the words of journalist Nick Wallis, reflecting on the difficulties he has faced over the past ten years whilst researching the Post Office’s Horizon IT scandal. 

The 17-part Radio 4 series he produced documenting the scandal, The Great Post Office Trial, was first released in 2020. It’s a brilliant, moving, scrupulous piece of investigative journalism. It is both meticulous — laying out in simple terms the complex technical, legal, and political factors that produced the scandal — and beautifully poignant — containing countless interviews with the subpostmasters who suffered the most as a result of the widest miscarriage of justice in modern times. 

What it does best is capture the great human cost of the Post Office’s actions. Facts detailing the intricate failings of Fujitsu, the Post Office, and the criminal justice system are laid bare alongside moments of immense anguish. A recording of Sarah Burgess-Boyd breaking down as she is aggressively interrogated by Post Office investigators; an interview with Lee Castleton’s daughter detailing the psychological impact of her father’s public and financial ruin; a slow, moving, voice piece from Wendy Buffrey describing how close she came to taking her own life at the height of her prosecution. 

It’s a story Wallis has been invested in since encountering Seema Misra in 2010, a pregnant subpostmaster who was wrongly imprisoned when charged with theft and false accounting. He’s reproduced it in various forms over the course of the past decade: writing stories for the BBC, Private Eye, and his blog. 

Wallis isn’t the only journalist who’s worked indefatigably to expose the scandal. Rebecca Thompson first broke the story for Computer Weekly in 2009. Matt Bardo and Tim Robinson produced a BBC Panorama documentary in 2015. Richard Brooks worked alongside Wallis to cover the story for a Private Eye special report in 2020.

But the tangible public impact of their work pales in comparison to that of ITV’s recent 4-part drama about the scandal, Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Just a week after its broadcast, Rishi Sunak announced his intention to acquit all subpostmasters in an extraordinary move that has no constitutional precedent. 

Why has the show achieved what the press has tried to do for over a decade? Why did it take a TV drama for this huge story to finally get the front-page headlines it deserves? Did the press fail Mr Bates and the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance?

The story makes for an excellent drama for precisely the reasons it was dismissed as news. It features ordinary people as its heroes. It is a story of underdogs, voiceless people who fought against all odds to expose the injustice of a national institution. It’s a story that is interesting now because it was not of significant public interest then; because it’s been enhanced by the unyielding determination of its protagonists over the past ten years.

Indeed, the show’s writer, Gwyneth Hughes, told The Guardian she was attracted towards the “niche story” because it was one of “ordinary people outside London,” “really lovely people, not one of whom deserves what’s happened to them.”

Hughes’ show focuses on just eight subpostmasters, presenting their stories as highly-traumatic experiences that they fought with a brand of stubbornness that might be considered uniquely British. Their quiet lives in quaint villages across the UK were forever changed: rather than accept ruin, they rose to meet this challenge with stoicism and an unwavering belief in justice. A story told with greater emotional emphasis than any journalistic work would ever be able to adopt, the drama profoundly disturbs its audience. It forces them to recognise that this is not a technology story, or a legal one: it is a story of national heroes, one which deserves national outcry. 

The show, in this sense, campaigns for Mr Bates and the JFSA. Hughes is an activist; Willis and his colleagues, as journalists, had a different role to play. They were not campaigners. Their duty was to lay out facts with meticulous objectivity, and let the story speak for itself. That a huge miscarriage of justice has occurred was, in this light, self-evident. 

They did not fail Mr Bates, because they were not activists; they were journalists. 

Their fight wasn’t against the Post Office, it was against a news agenda that prioritises “public interest” over human interest, that prioritises the powerful and the glamorous over ordinary people. 

The success of Mr Bates vs The Post Office owes them a great debt. They have fought to keep the subpostmasters’ stories in the public consciousness for decades, if only on the margins, and their hard work has finally enabled the story’s protagonists to explode into the mainstream, more resilient and determined to seek justice than ever. 

Illustration by Lindsay Martin

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