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
War and peace
3 min read

Letter from Lviv

Loss, resilience, and a hope one day to count blessings not missile intercepts.

Iryna Dobrohorska is Christian Aid’s Country Response Director for Ukraine.

A woman stands at the back of an armoured military vehicle, the door of which is open.
Iryna stands by a displayed military vehicle.

Ukraine is only two years older than I am. My personal history is intertwined with Ukraine’s history. Instead of the carefree fun I should be having as a young Ukrainian woman, on Saturday I was reflecting that my last two years have been dominated by war since Russia began its full-scale invasion. Over those 730 days, I have witnessed the best and worst of humanity.  

I was evacuated from Kyiv to the sounds of explosions nearby, fearing I would be raped or murdered by Russian soldiers if they entered the capital. I’ve wept over losing university friends in combat. I’ve despaired at how Ukrainian writers are being deliberately targeted by the Kremlin.  

But I also observed the speed that we Ukrainians built trust and social connections with unknown people. I was proud of the warmth of my hometown, Lviv, which welcomed people from the east of the country - it crushed the myths that Russia was trying to ooze into our national life that we were a divided country that didn’t have the right to exist except as part of Russia. 

Not just in Lviv but all over Ukraine. This month in Odesa I felt the same warmth extended to elderly displaced people when I hosted a visit to our local humanitarian partner Heritage Ukraine by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He saw for himself how the team, funded by the Scottish faith charity Blythswood, had opened their doors and their hearts to these traumatised strangers facing an uncertain future. 

One of those displaced people, Nadia, told me: “We want to go home, but our home is being shelled. At least here we stay with dignity.”  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face.

t’s a scene of resilience I’ve grown accustomed to as I’ve crisscrossed the country to play my small part in the astonishing humanitarian effort powered by the UK public’s incredibly generous donations.  

The Iryna I saw in the mirror in 2021 wouldn’t recognise the young woman I see looking back at me today.  

In Kherson, I was recording the stories of illegal detention of civilians to the sound of artillery fire. In Mykolaiv, my window view was an apartment block with the roof blown off and clay-coloured water was the only drinking option.  

I never thought that I would learn the types of weaponry used in modern warfare. Now I know the difference between the motorbike sound of a drone from the missile whistle above my head followed by the clank when it detonates nearby.  

Security awareness is an everyday reality in Ukraine. We often debate during an alert whether choosing to sleep in our own beds instead of going to a shelter may turn out to be our last night. A six-months pregnant teacher friend of mine in Kyiv was killed in her sleep from a drone strike.  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face. Yet I also sense the paradox that we’ve accepted the war becoming everyday normality and so has the rest of the world. 

Global attention today is not focused only on Ukraine. A host of other crises are taking precedence in the need for a humanitarian response. My biggest fear is that the long-term nature of our crisis reduces global actors to sympathizing observers.  

What I do know is that my generation of young Ukrainians who have lost so much will not allow that to happen. More than ever, I feel the need for a just and resolute peace for Ukraine. With the help of our international friends, the day will come when those who have suffered can go back to rebuild their homes and communities.  

As I move on to engage further in Ukraine’s recovery efforts, I feel privileged to have worked for Christian Aid as part of the humanitarian response. I’m most proud of our role in being a catalyst for local people to help themselves by setting their own community priorities in the kind of support they need, giving them a sense of dignity and self-worth.  

It’s that kind of world that I dream about - where one day I will count my country’s blessings instead of how many drones and missiles were intercepted the night before.