LIZ MILNE adds her voice to the uproar demanding justice for the wrongly accused British sub-postmasters
Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax holds that sin begins with treating people as things (1999, p314).
One only has to look at the recent upsurge of interest in the long-running drama – or rather, tragedy – of the Post Office scandal to see the truth of these words.
What did Post Office executives know?
The Post Office have not only treated people as things, they have also treated a thing (the highly flawed Horizon accounting system) as being more deserving of respect and attention than flesh and blood human beings.
Just one example serves to illustrate the utter cruelty of the matter: the successful prosecution of Seema Misra, eight weeks pregnant and sentenced on her son’s tenth birthday for ‘theft’, was held up as a resounding success by people who must have completely disregarded every scrap of humanity about her. The facts that she was a mother, a wife, expecting another baby, strenuously denied any wrongdoing, was an entirely upstanding citizen – not one of these was considered, except when the loss of her legal case was lauded as a means to controlling the narrative and preventing other postmasters from accusing Horizon of the litany of faults of which, if reports are to be believed – Post Office executives were already well aware! (The Guardian, 2024).
Questions must be asked:
Any justice on the Horizon?
Why was Horizon rolled out with so many egregious flaws riddled throughout the software? The cynical will ask, ‘Who benefited from that?’
Why, when postmaster after postmaster was calling the helpline saying, over and over, “There’s something wrong with the software,” were each told, “No one else is having these issues: it is just you, alone; you are incompetent or criminal, it is all your fault?” That, surely, was mandated from on high to call centre staff, as even the most underpaid telephone operator would quickly notice a pattern of postmasters from all over the country phoning in with the same problems. If it was a deliberate policy: why?
And, having realised the scale of the problem, why was the Post Office’s response to demonise those upon whom Horizon had been inflicted? How cruel, how callous, how devoid of kindness does one (or an entire board) have to be to prefer their own fat bonus (I truly cannot think of any other possible reason for it) over falsely disrupting the lives of hundreds of people and their relatives?
Why did all the accounting errors result in shortfalls against the individual branches? Anyone with a scrap of bookkeeping knowledge would immediately find that to be incredibly suspect, knowing that true bookkeeping errors go both ways on average.
No honour in Honour
Why was Paula Vennells awarded a CBE in the midst of this apparently horrific run of criminality on the part of so many individual postmasters, most of whom – until that time – had blameless records? A CBE, incidentally, which she has only decided to hand back after an ITV dramatization (Mr Bates vs The Post Office) has riled up the country, and a petition demanding her to return it passed one million signatures in a shockingly short time. Prior to that, the government seemed to be waiting for her to “do the right thing” and hand it back voluntarily, instead of actively demanding its return (see Guardian, 2024 article here). She could have – and should have, frankly – returned the honour at any time after she received it, especially as, in a slow trickle, the depth and breadth of the Horizon failures became known. But instead she hunkered down and waited until she had no choice, until it was almost certain that it would be forcibly withdrawn from her. And who else was in management at the time enabling and enforcing these horrifically cruel prosecutions?
None of this even touches on the underlying racism that has apparently been found at play (BBC, 2023). That factor alone deserves a plethora of articles devoted to uncovering who came up with these offensive terms and why, in the 20th century, in a country that claims to be kindly and inclusive, such language was tolerated even for a second in an institution as supposedly respectable as the Post Office…
A disaster this far-reaching and long-lasting was not – could not be – the act of one single person. A disaster like this requires a chain of incompetence, greed, and cruelty with multiple players, each and every one of them, thinking of those postmasters as mere inconvenient things to be casually and carelessly dealt with.
And Granny Weatherwax is quite right. That’s a sin.
Written by Liz Milne