The great Post Office scandal

How reporters helped put right a vast and entirely avoidable miscarriage of justice

The Post Office, Fujitsu and the government have agreed to not to claim legal professional privilege in documents required by the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, its chair announced this week. Sir Wyn Williams, a retired High Court judge, has been asked to look at the failures of an information technology system that led to the prosecution, conviction and imprisonment of many entirely honest and demonstrably innocent sub-postmasters.

The promise to waive confidentiality is welcome — though it should come as no surprise given the government’s declared position that

the inquiry should not be obstructed by the assertion of legal privilege in its important work to discover the truth and make recommendations so that the government, and the public, can be assured that nothing like the Horizon scandal can ever happen again.

Some consequences of this week’s development are explained by Nick Wallis on his new blog, which is well worth a read for anyone interested in the statutory inquiry.

Wallis was not the first journalist to write about the Post Office’s scandalous treatment of its sub-postmasters — leading to what I described in April as the biggest miscarriage of justice ever to be put right in a single ruling. The credit for breaking the story must go to Computer Weekly and its reporter Rebecca Thomson. But Wallis is the reporter who, over the past decade, has made the story his own.

And today his book is published. The Great Post Office Scandal is a real page-turner, combining tragic personal stories, a strong narrative, courtroom drama and clear explanations of both computerised accounting systems and complex legal processes. As you might expect from someone with a background in broadcasting, Wallis even offers pronunciation advice where needed.

What emerges from the book is that the improper prosecutions might never have come to light if it had not been for a series of striking coincidences. Wallis himself picked up the story only because a taxi driver had tweeted Radio Surrey, where Wallis presented the breakfast programme, in an attempt to solicit work. That led to the first BBC investigation, which in turn generated more informants and more coverage on radio and television.

James Arbuthnot, a former defence minister who was then an MP and is now a peer, might not have paid any attention to the Computer Weekly story in 2009 if the magazine had not published an investigation a decade earlier into the crash of a Chinook helicopter, with the loss of 29 lives, that may have been caused by a computer failure. Anyone looking at claims of former sub-postmasters needed a great deal of self-confidence to believe that people who had been convicted of dishonesty — often on their own admission — were in reality the victims of a shoddy computer system that the Post Office continued to insist was entirely robust.

But this is also a book about journalism. It explains how the BBC kept the story alive, on programmes as diverse as Panorama and The One Show. It explains how Wallis keep himself alive by crowdfunding his court reporting; if he had not covered the lengthy hearings in Bates v Post Office before Mr Justice Fraser, most of the hearing would have gone unreported. And it offers advice on court reporting from a freelance who had previously spent little time in court:

If you hear a document being discussed during proceedings which sounds like it might be interesting, you can request it from the parties. This is usually a tedious process because the parties are not obliged to hand it over, but the courts in England and Wales have decided that in the interests of open justice, a journalist asking for a document referred to in court should usually be given it, unless there is a good reason not to. This potentially creates a pathway for getting confidential information into the public domain whether the parties like it or not. If a journalist isn’t in court to witness a document being used in evidence, something big enough to hang a Panorama on can be mentioned once and then disappear for good, without anyone requesting to see it.

The Great Post Office Scandal fills the gaps in a story that most of us have been only vaguely aware of during the past decade. Wallis has written a chastening case study for students of business, journalism and the law. There are detailed accounts of the Bates litigation and what followed, including an unsuccessful — and, for the Post Office, ultimately humiliating — attempt to have Fraser taken off the case.

The book’s only fault is that, at more than 500 pages including additional reference material, it’s too long. But Wallis has been working non-stop on this story for years and nobody will be surprised that he had no time to write a shorter book. When the Williams inquiry begins taking oral evidence next year, we can expect to see copies of The Great Post Office Scandal within easy reach of every lawyer and reporter at the hearing.

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