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NICKY MARR: Mr Bates vs the Post Office and the power of the arts

By Nicky Marr

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Nicky Marr. Mr Bates vs The Post Office
Nicky Marr. Mr Bates vs The Post Office

“Everyone has been shocked by watching what they have done over the past few days, and it is an appalling miscarriage of justice.”

These are not my words, but the words of Rishi Sunak, spoken during a BBC interview on Sunday, after Mr Bates vs The Post Office was aired on ITV.

If you’ve not yet seen the four-part drama, you’ll have heard about it. The lives and livelihoods of thousands of sub postmasters and mistresses were ruined after Fujitsu computer system Horizon, foisted upon them all by The Post Office, showed up fictitious accounting deficits which these individuals were contractually obliged to meet.

Decent, hard-working individuals were driven to bankruptcy, imprisonment, depression and – in some cases – suicide. Prosecuted for theft, fraud, and false accounting, they were bullied and belittled. Cruelly, each was told they were the only one experiencing difficulties.

This widespread gaslighting of hundreds of ‘wee guys’ by big business continued between 1999 and 2015, becoming one of the greatest miscarriages of justice this country has ever seen.

But why has it taken a drama, albeit a brilliantly executed one with a stellar cast, to make us sit up and pay attention to a scandal that has been public for two decades?

Only now is the Metropolitan Police investigating criminality within The Post Office. And only now is the government, the sole owner of The Post Office, sitting up and paying attention. Only now will there be a proper scheme for pardoning those who were convicted, and to properly compensate those who lost out.

For many it is too little, and for some it is too late. Some died before seeing justice. They died in shame, in frustration, and in despair.

But the TV series has given others the courage – for the first time – to speak up. Already, over 50 additional sub postmasters have come forward to say they too were victims of Horizon software malfunctions. They may now be compensated for the money they lost, but not for the associated sleepless nights, or feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

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Top of the list in receiving plaudits for this seismic shift in attitude towards the scandal is not the writer of the drama, Gwyneth Hughes, nor its director James Strong, nor even the cast, led by the ever-reliable Toby Jones. But it’s Alan Bates himself, the tenacious wronged sub postmaster who rallied the troops and led the charge, with the primary aim of obtaining not money or retribution, but the truth.

Without his dogged determination, aided by his wife Suzanne and supporting cast of Jo Hamilton, Lee Castleton, plus a myriad of other wronged sub postmasters and mistresses (555 in all, by the time of the court case), and MP (now Lord) James Arbuthnot, who led the campaign in parliament, little would have happened to right any wrongs.

Serious questions must now be asked of Paula Vennells, CEO of The Post Office from 2012 to 2019, who must at least be stripped of her CBE. Fujitsu must come under intense scrutiny too. Criminal prosecutions surely must follow.

And as Jo Hamilton asked during the drama, what happened to all the money?

The Prime Minister said on Sunday he was shocked by this scandal, but why wasn’t he shocked before? I’d suggest that he knew fine what was happening, but it wasn’t on his list of priorities because it wasn’t in the public consciousness.

It took a drama to properly tell this story of this scandal, and the awful human tragedies that touched our communities. Good storytelling and great acting help us to understand and empathise. We have been stirred, collectively, into action that can’t be ignored.

The arts have the power to enrich our lives. They inspire, entertain, provoke, and bring joy, escapism, and solace. And here’s the proof that they move political mountains.

When arts funding is on the chopping block, we can’t ignore its value.

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