Responding ethically when things go wrong — an object lesson on TV

Toby Jones stars in 'Mr Bates vs the Post Office'. PHOTO: TNS
Toby Jones stars in 'Mr Bates vs the Post Office'. PHOTO: TNS
A recent TV series is a lesson in basic ethics Gareth Jones writes.

Docudramas have an important part to play in society.

Besides shining a light on to a fraught situation, they enable us to get some idea of how ordinary people are affected. This is why the recent series Mr Bates vs the Post Office is so powerful, with some very disturbing ramifications.

While set in the UK and while dealing only with a single institution, the messages that emerge are relevant for all large institutions, including universities.

Over the years 1999 to 2015, the Post Office in the UK accused around 3500 postal workers of theft, fraud and false accounting, all based on information from its Horizon IT system. These were ordinary employees looking after small post offices throughout Britain.

Of these, at least 700 were prosecuted, losing their livelihoods, and having to pay back large sums of money that they had allegedly stolen. A few committed suicide and some went to prison.

It gradually emerged that the Post Office had known since 2010 that there were faults in the software.

What interests me is the manner in which, at so many levels, those with authority in the Post Office did their best to contain the situation and maintain a cohesive front.

Gwyneth Hughes, the writer of the series, has commented on the groupthink and confirmation bias she uncovered, leading the institution as a whole to be guilty of appalling cruelty and lying. In all likelihood these people were not evil, but found themselves out of their depth when confronted by a major aberration in the IT system, with potentially massive financial consequences.

Their coping mechanism was to defend the institution to the bitter end.

If I am correct in suggesting that there are lessons here for all large institutions, what are they?

The first that comes to mind is that of transparency. This entails a willingness to open the books as widely as possible, and admit when mistakes have been made. It also entails an ability on the part of those in power to know the details of what has possibly gone wrong. One gets the impression from the Mr Bates saga that the most senior people were heavily reliant on what they were told by those under them, and may not have been in a position to question the information that was being fed to them.

This may be unfair on these senior people, but their integrity was being jeopardised. As an onlooker I am not able to judge on this matter, but the difficulty these people experienced when cross questioned in a court setting was unsettling.

Throughout this saga there was too little accountability on the part of the Post Office officials. They were committed to defending the public facade of this reliable and noble institution. The facade could not be questioned, no matter what had gone wrong.

Tragically, as the officials battled to retain this image, the deception and lies and heartache caused to honest little employees starkly demonstrated that it was an institution that could not be trusted. Their efforts to defend the Post Office eventually brought it to its knees.

Those defending it had forgotten their responsibility to their employees, those at the coal face, or more aptly those on the counters of the local post offices. These were the people trying to balance their books, that were ending up in the red through no fault of their own.

If only those in charge had been prepared to listen to them and treat them as equals and as people worthy of being taken seriously. The calumny that has since befallen the Post Office and so many of its employees could have been avoided. This is basic ethics — treat others with respect and worthy of being listened to.

The tragic events that befell so many who lost their livelihoods as a result of this farrago would have been avoided if those in senior positions had been prepared to look after the vulnerable. These were the ordinary people without a voice of their own. Thankfully, in this instance, they did have a voice, that of Mr Bates, who did his homework and refused to give up, no matter how many toes he trod on. But there should have been resolution without a Mr Bates.

A final moral of this story is the critical importance of integrity and good character on the part of all involved in a difficult situation where things have gone badly astray. The British Post Office suffered irreparable damage in this case, but all of us can learn from it because all of us can find ourselves caught up in very difficult situations where unpalatable decisions have to be made.

The way we make them is crucial and a few basic ethical values such as transparency, accountability, and fairness to junior as well as senior colleagues will help us avoid damaging and unethical repercussions.

— Gareth Jones is an Emeritus Professor in anatomy, University of Otago