Weekend essay
Comment
Ethics
8 min read

The Post Office scandal: why truth matters

Lawyer Alex Stewart analyses the Post Office scandal for the lessons it teaches on our missing morals.

Alex Stewart is a lawyer, trustee and photographer.  

A man, dressed in a suit and anarak, stands in front of a law court.
Toby Jones plays the eponymous Mr Bates in ITV Studios dramatisation.

The reaction to ITV's 4-part dramatisation of the The Post Office Horizon story has been profound. It managed to stir up huge public sympathy for the sub postmasters and has galvanised the Government into action. The story has also tapped into deep wells of moral outrage at a time when trust in our institutions and corporations is the lowest in living memory. It’s a tale of failure to take responsibility. It’s a tale that shows the truth matters. 

A failure to take responsibility 

What seems to have enraged us most is the collective moral failure over many years of those in positions of power. They either deliberately covered up the problems with the Post Office’s Horizon IT system, by withholding information about known faults, or simply ignored them.  The sense of disbelief has been compounded by the apparent inability, so far, to pin the blame on any one person or group of people. The Post Office’s ex CEO, Paula Vennells, has handed back her CBE but it seems she was only the tip of an iceberg of obfuscation and prevarication.   

What emerges is a pattern of behaviour that moral philosophers call moral diffusion. It is also called the ‘bystander effect’, so-called after a case in which a woman was attacked in New York in the presence of a large number of people who knew that she was being assaulted but failed to come to her rescue as they all saw it as someone else’s problem. 

I witnessed an example of this the other day in London at a busy pedestrian crossing. A man with an angle grinder was cutting through a bicycle lock.  As the sparks flew, pedestrians looked at each other for reassurance, as if to ask - is this ok?  Was he shamelessly stealing the bicycle, or had he been sent by the council to remove a long-abandoned bicycle?  No one knew and no one intervened. 

The instinct to shirk responsibility seems to be hardwired into us, part of our fallen nature.  It all started with Adam and Eve. Embarrassed and ashamed they hide, only to discover you cannot hide from God. And when they are discovered, both deny personal responsibility, saying in effect “it wasn’t me”.  

Later we have the story of Cain killing his brother Abel. Cain doesn't deny he has done something wrong, he simply denies he had any responsibility for his brother at all.  He asks why he should have any concern for anyone beyond himself. ‘Look after Number One’ Is the voice of Cain throughout the ages. 

Why is this failure of leadership such an effrontery to us? Because we instinctively recognise that leadership is not about lording it over others. 

The Government has promised to hold to account those responsible for the scandal.  Perhaps the roving searchlight of the inquiry will succeed in identifying the human culprits? In the meantime, executives and politicians are scrambling over themselves to deny responsibility, typified by the response of Sir Ed Davey who has taken the art of the non-apology to a new level. The honourable exception, among the political class, is Lord Arbuthnot who as an MP was both tireless and fearless in campaigning for justice for the sub-postmasters.     

Why is this failure of leadership such an effrontery to us? Because we instinctively recognise that leadership is not about lording it over others, hiding behind other people’s decisions or passing the buck, it is about taking responsibility.  In practice we do not live by the philosophy presented by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic, that justice is whatever is in the interest of the stronger party.  Nor are we willing to live in a Darwinian world where in the struggle for supremacy there is no need for the powerful to look out for the weak simply because they are powerful.    

There is a fascinating moment in the story of Moses in the book of Exodus when he notices an Egyptian official beating one of the Israelite slaves. He sees that no one else is willing to intervene and he gets involved, at some personal risk, and in so doing marks himself out as a leader.   

Leadership is born when we become active not passive, when we decide that something is wrong and we need to take steps to put it right. These are the people who make the world a better place because doing nothing, though it may not be illegal, is not morally neutral. Failing to act to prevent a wrong does not simply leave a vacuum, it gives permission for evil to flourish. Or as Burke put it “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”   

Alan Bates could have resigned himself to his fate, but instead has doggedly pursued justice for 20 years.  

We all long for leaders who will lead responsibly and not out of self-interest, who will not turn a blind eye to the suffering of the powerless or blame others when asked to explain why they did nothing.   

This is especially so in the church which holds itself to a higher standard and should know better. The ITV series quite deliberately dwells on the fact that Paula Vennells was, as well as being CEO of the Post Office, ordained in the Church of England.  

The truth matters 

Key to the success of the sub-postmasters case was the ability to get to the truth, a task made very difficult by the fact that the Post Office held all the records needed to prove that it was the Horizon system, not the sub-postmasters, that was at fault.   

Being able to determine the truth of a matter is essential to how we lead our lives, and especially in matters of justice.  The version of events presented by the Post Office turned out to be false, but once this false version was on record, the reputations of otherwise upstanding pillars of local communities were destroyed overnight.  The public shame and the human cost of being cruelly and wrongly labelled a liar and thief is powerfully brought home by the TV series, as is the relief of vindication. 

We do not in reality live our lives in a postmodern universe where truth is seen as relative (Oprah’s infamous “What is your truth?” moment), or nothing more than a claim to power.  We know on a daily basis the power of the truth to set us free, from false accusations or a guilty conscience, and how much it stinks when we are deceived - especially when it is by the powerful.  

A lack of integrity 

During the Cold War, there was a running joke that the best indicator of whether a country operated as a one-party state was whether it had the word “Democratic” in its name.    

We have become used to the same kind of dissonance between image and reality, whether it is the smiley telegenic people in a company’s glossy videos (actors? library footage?) or an impossibly worthy values statement.

I was once part of group of employees invited to revamp our employer’s declared values. We were presented with a set of aspirational statements that described a culture that was akin to the Garden of Eden and a working environment that bore no relation to the reality.  When I pointed this out, I was not invited back.   

In public Paula Vennells was insistent that the Post Office cared about its people while out of the spotlight those people were being horribly mistreated.   

It isn’t always so, but how can so many organisations live with such glaring contradictions?  Or is it that boards become so disconnected, by geography or otherwise, from the organisations they run and the cultures they preside over that they actually believe the image over the reality?  

"Computer says no"

One of the more terrifying issues raised by the Post Office scandal is how the principle of the presumption of innocence was abandoned.  How come the testimony of hundreds of innocent people was rejected in favour of a faulty computer system’s data?  

Part of the problem is that the English courts regard computer records as reliable unless the defendant can show otherwise. Since 1999, the burden of proof - and with it the presumption of innocence – has effectively been reversed: the defendant is guilty unless he can show that the computer records implicating him are wrong.   

The notion that we cannot challenge a computer that “Says No” is a real problem. As the Post Office scandal shows, computer software is often riddled with bugs. After all, it is written by fallible human programmers. It also became clear that the Horizon system’s data could be manipulated remotely - and without the knowledge of the sub postmasters.  

To assume that computer generated evidence is infallible is a very dangerous assumption in a world increasingly dominated by machines and, more recently, artificial intelligence.   

A very human story 

The sub-postmasters in the Post Office case were not machines or assets.  The ITV drama succeeded in doing what no legal or investigative process can adequately do, it humanised the victims. Despite all the PR talk about caring for its people, the Post Office only cared about its own reputation, and in the process of trying to save itself lost its humanity and its reputation.   

The drama successfully stripped away all the lifeless procedural, technical and legal terminology to reveal a very simple, devastatingly human story that needed to be told. In Alan Bates’ words: “the Post Office stole my livelihood, my shop, my job, my home, my life savings and my good name”.   

This Post Office story has struck a chord because it reminds us of is what is increasingly missing in public life - leadership, accountability, respect for the truth, integrity and humanity. 

Watching the ITV drama, I was frequently moved to tears and cheered at the end. We root for the victims out of solidarity, as if we ourselves had been wronged.  

The Christian understanding of sin identifies it as a public not a private matter, as it infects the whole body politic.  This is why the case name given to a crime is “R (that is, the state) v X”. There are certain wrongs which are so serious they are considered to be offences against the whole community, not just the individual victim.  

The Post Office saga is a parable of our times.  It tells a story of a society whose elites have become dangerously detached from principle and deaf to the concerns of ordinary people. It will not go away any time soon. The moment of true catharsis, if it comes, will be when our institutions and leaders have earned back our trust. 

The last word goes to the book of Proverbs: 

When good people run things, everyone is glad, but when the ruler is bad, everyone groans. 

Article
Comment
Politics
10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.