Streaming updates about outrageous injustice

Former sub-postmaster Alan Bates during the day he gives evidence to a parliamentary committee....
Former sub-postmaster Alan Bates during the day he gives evidence to a parliamentary committee. Photo: Reuters
If you happen to see me on the street, you would be best to wave, smile and walk on quickly.

Alternatively, you could pretend you don’t recognise me. I am used to that.

Failure to follow this advice could mean you are subjected to an ear-bashing.

Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

What I will be regaling you with is my obsession with the decades-long British Post Office Limited scandal where thousands of sub-postmasters had their lives turned upside down after the installation of a flawed digital accounting system, Horizon, provided by Fujitsu.

Over the 16 years to 2015, more than 900 sub-postmasters were convicted of theft, fraud, and false accounting because Horizon was wrongly showing shortfalls in their accounts.

Others were forced to cover the "shortfalls" with their own money, or had their contracts terminated.

People were wrongly imprisoned, lost livelihoods, homes, reputations and at least four sub-postmasters took their own lives.

In 2017, a High Court group action against the PO involving 555 sub-postmasters led by Alan Bates eventually succeeded in 2019, but the £58 million ($NZ122.4m) win was largely eaten up by legal costs.

It did mean those convicted could challenge their convictions in court. Schemes set up for compensation have been slow to pay up and some sub-postmasters have died before getting anything.

I had read about it before the recent airing of the docu-drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

This told the story of the actions of nuggety whistleblower extraordinaire and aggrieved former sub-postmaster Alan Bates. His contract had been terminated after he questioned the validity of supposed shortfalls.

Then I fell in love with the real Alan Bates after seeing him in the documentary which screened later.

After spending the last 20 or so years dedicated to getting to the bottom of this scandal for himself and his fellow sub-postmasters he has been undeterred by multiple setbacks, remained unflappable and retained a sense of humour.

It is a story which still has some way to go, even though the issues date back to 1999. It has had myriad twists and turns.

It is the subject of a statutory inquiry led by retired High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams.

His job is to summarise the failings of the IT system which led to the suspensions, prosecutions and convictions and establish who knew what and when.

He is also to consider whether the Post Office has learned from the scandal and embedded the cultural change necessary.

This inquiry which has had more than 120 days of hearings since 2022, is now hearing evidence from some of the leading figures involved.

The PO, kicking and screaming to the end, has been tardy in providing disclosure of all relevant information from the get-go.

Last week, I tuned in online in real time to see Mr Bates’ appearance.

From then, I was hooked. I have been dipping in to previous bits of the hearings and keeping tabs on what is going on.

The inquiry’s leading counsel Jason Beer KC provides a masterclass in patient, organised and determined questioning, particularly when faced with amnesiac witnesses keen to shed crocodile tears, but avoid any responsibility for anything.

This whole scandal has much we could learn from here, even if the Crazy Cat Gentleman escaped to his hidey-hole in North Otago for a few days to avoid having to listen to me talk about it and feign an interest.

(He does not approve of me watching it hunched over my laptop into the early morn, even though I have tolerated him bobbing in and out of bed like a jack-in-the-box to watch livestreaming of Moto GP recently. I make no attempt to feign an interest.)

The importance of proper process, the folly of blind belief in poorly understood IT systems, and the danger of groupthink are all things we should heed.

When only a handful of sub-postmasters were usually prosecuted for dishonesty each year before Horizon came on the scene, why were Post Office bosses so ready to believe there were so many bad apples?

Did they think their previous accounting systems had been masking a criminal empire? Where was common sense?

The role the media can play in exposing such a scandal should not be forgotten.

Computer Weekly broke the story in 2009, and various other outlets including the BBC, Private Eye, and the Daily Mail have been on the case, The television docu-drama was a great way to sheet home the human impact of the injustice.

Now, if I cannot spend the time to catch up with hours of the hearing, I know there will be several news outlets covering it, each finding different newsworthy angles or delving further into issues raised.

As New Zealand’s news media shrinks by the day, it is hard not to be envious.

 - Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer.