How ‘Mr Bates v The Post Office’ Resurrected a National Scandal

In this week's article, Veda Dharwar, our secretary this term, explores how the ITV's dramatisation of the Post Office Scandal resulted in real concrete progress in the form of compensation for all the victims of the faulty system...

In 1999, the Post Office spent over £1 billion pounds on its roll out of the faulty ‘Horizon’ system across the nation. Over the next sixteen years, more than 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted for charges of ‘false accounting’ and ‘fraud’; they were ostracised by their communities and the law for crimes they did not commit. What ensued was a long campaign by innocent sub-postmasters, who fought for justice, and were partially reimbursed in 2019. Of the hundreds prosecuted, however, only ninety five convictions had been overturned by January of this year. Even after the publication of Nick Wallis’ incisive 2021 investigative book, ‘The Great Post Office Scandal’, and the creation of a public enquiry and select committee, limited tangible progress was made.

Gwyneth Hughes’ political drama, Mr Bates v The Post Office, released this January, tells a few individual stories shared by the many victims of the affair. The leadership of Alan Bates, a central figure in the campaign against the Post Office, and the heartbreaking suicide of Martin Griffiths as a result of the allegations brought against him are amongst the few narratives depicted. A portrayal of the collective experience of victimhood is portrayed with emotional authenticity and beautifully written dialogue; by contrast, the scripts of characters like Vennells and Angela Van den Bogerd are derived solely from their own words. What emerges is a tragic depiction of lives destroyed and lost in combat with the indifference of the powerful. Upon its release, Mr Bates was crowned the most viewed programme of 2024 so far, and ITV’s most popular new drama in over a decade – a testament to the enduring popularity and relevance of material stories and political dramas. 

Yet, perhaps the most formidable accomplishment of the documentary lies in its public response. In the last month, the government’s public enquiry has moved into its final stage, over a hundred further victims have come forward, and former Post Office chief, Paula Vennells, is to hand back the CBE which she was, ironically, awarded during the public inquiry in 2019. Public outcry has intensified to unprecedented levels. Why was it, then, that it took merely an ITV documentary released at the beginning of this year to trigger such renewed interest in the scandal, and to prompt immense compensation and acquittal efforts?

A previous newsletter written by Lara Machado commented on the power of narrative as a vehicle of social and political change. Indeed, the current obsession with the biopic genre in media betrays a special preference among audiences for microhistories, individual stories of subjection and resistance, particularly when told through the mediums of film and TV.  Good journalism, at its core, is about storytelling; Mr Bates v The Post Office took the seemingly impersonal issue of a system failure and humanised the victims of the Post Office scandal in a way that other forms of media couldn’t. Yet perhaps most importantly, the documentary brought the lived experience of the victims to the fore. It stripped bare the devastating impact that wrongful convictions had on individuals and their families, highlighting the human cost of what amounted in its totality to institutional failure. 

However, the overwhelming response to the drama also highlights the selective nature of public attention and media coverage. While the Post Office scandal garnered widespread sympathy and support, other injustices, such as the victims of the infected blood scandal, have voiced their struggle to gain similar traction despite decades of advocacy. Parliament, it might seem to those victims, will only take matters seriously with sufficient public criticism. Symptomatic of TV’s mass viewership is perhaps its privileging of certain narratives over others. Indeed, a special appeal of Mr Bates is that it tells the story of the Post Office scandal through a focus on the powerless individual, employing the trope of the small man up against a state corporation.

Ironically, though, it was only with a four hour TV drama, two years of production, a handful of A-list actors and a multi-million pound budget that the change, which hundreds of victims campaigned for over 25 long years, could finally materialise. 

Veda Dharwar, Secretary

Recommended Readings for the week:

https://www.politico.eu/article/post-office-horizon-scandal-uk-mr-bates-itv-rishi-sunak-government/#:~:text=First%20aired%20on%20New%20Year’s,had%20their%20lives%20torn%20apart

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/infinite-scroll/how-social-media-abdicated-responsibility-for-the-news

Published by Anabelle Zaris