Horizon: Making a drama out of a crisis
Sarah Morgan Jones
You couldn’t make it up! If you saw this in a film, you wouldn’t believe it. These oft heard phrases are commonplace in conversations about the trials and tribulations of ordinary lives.
Watching Mr Bates vs The Post Office this week, they kept going through my mind – if you didn’t know what you were watching was true, that the events unfolding had formed the trials and tribulations of very ordinary lives, then you would surely be shouting at the TV: ‘Oh come on, as if!’
But true they are. And outrageous.
But why is it that it takes a TV drama to make that outrage translate into political action?
Plunging straight into the rising panic in the eyes of Monica Dolan who plays Jo Hamilton, a sub-postmistress from Hampshire, who, while on the phone to the Horizon helpline, saw her deficit double at the press of the button, the jeopardy is real.
We don’t know her, but as she runs from her house to her post office and general stores with a tray of piping hot scones, we already love her. A happy, cheerful woman who has carved out a position of trust in the heart of her community.
Her seemingly scatty self-deprecation is endearing and yet frustrating, because we know it is not her lack of IT skills which is leading her to this despair.
And we know that when the blank-voiced operative on the mis-named helpline tells her that no one else is having any problems with the Horizon accounting system, that she is lying.
The Horizon scandal has been going on for years. Every now and again, we might hear in the news that someone has been jailed after admitting false accounting, that someone else has had their conviction overturned despite pleading guilty to the same.
The names always different, the implication of some level of wrongdoing, consistent.
For example, we will have heard of Noel Thomas from Ynys Môn, played by Ifan Huw Dafydd, who was jailed for a crime he didn’t commit, and we may have heard that his conviction was quashed – but does doubt still linger in the casual listener’s minds?
Unless you have been following closely, it easy to draw the conclusion that there was no smoke without fire, that something was wrong, but maybe not as bad as the crime they had been charged with – else why plead guilty?
What we may not have seen is the pressure these individuals were under to confess, the threats and ongoing stress drawn out over years and years, or the fact the Post Office has been able to bring its own prosecutions, without the aid of the police or the normal levels of evidence, for over 300 years.
We may not have known that in an archaic and questionably legal contractual agreement, sub-postmasters are personally liable for any financial shortfall in their businesses.
The significance of Mr Bates vs The Post Office, the job that it has done, over four evenings in a single week, is to bring all these disparate stories together.
To blow away the smoke and wipe clean the mirrors and to lay out before us the level of gaslighting and obfuscation that these ordinary people have been dealing with.
This is the essence of good drama. Running alongside a documentary featuring the real protagonists of this sorry, scandalous tale, we can see there is no artistic licence at play – that it is almost verbatim.
The pain and outrage of the victims – and that is what they are, mere collateral damage in the Post Office’s cynical bid to save its own brand and reputation – is ours to share. They are ordinary people thrown to the lions and torn apart in front of our eyes.
Viewers took to social media claiming it was too hard to watch, that the cruelty was like watching a car crash in slow motion. My husband repeated this view while we watched, to such an extent I turned to him and said, somewhat irritably, “Imagine if it was you! You only have to watch it!”
Tale after tale of blatant injustice, heartbreaking scenes of mental health deterioration, desperation, incarceration and even suicide was unfolded before our eyes, while pinch-faced Post Office top-dogs collected their bonuses, kept hold of their protected positions, were even honoured for them.
Light of day
Made by Little Gem, a production company that ‘doesn’t do drama’, the series has a long and deep news archive to draw from.
In an interview he explained how he helped connect Alan Bates, (the central character, played by Toby Jones, who drives the story and the force of nature who, after being sacked from his own post office in Llandudno for refusing to accept the losses were his problem, found a way to connect to the other sub-postmasters and keep the whole machine moving) with the production company.
He also “provided contacts and background information to the production team, including various documents which haven’t yet seen the light of day”.
He said: “I don’t think any of it has been sweetened. At times it is bleak. I think the series brings the scandal to life, while staying very faithful to the spirit and facts of the story.”
Private Eye, Computer Weekly, Panorama, Radio 4…these are not small or insignificant media voices. And 25 years is no insignificant period of time.
People accused and convicted have died in the time they have spent waiting for justice, for their names to be cleared or to be compensated.
They have lost everything while the Post Office and ultimately the various UK Governments have dragged their feet, gaslit and generally fannied around pointing fingers at anyone other than themselves and, maybe most remarkably of all, marked their own homework.
Now, one week on from the broadcast of part one, when it is likely that most people in the land have finally become properly aware of the scandal, when new victims have come forward, when daytime TV and radio have given time and space to voices other than those featured in the series…
Now the Metropolitan Police have announced they will be investigating Post Office chiefs for fraud, perverting the course of justice, perjury.
Now we have the PM saying, ‘Ooh this is a scandal and heads must roll’ (paraphrased, obviously) and Ed Davey babbling on that he knew they wuz wrong ‘uns despite continuing to “express full confidence in the integrity and robustness of the Horizon system” in correspondence with Alan Bates.
Now we are finally listening to Lee Castleton, played by Will Mellor, who tried to defend himself in court by simply telling the truth and ended up in crippling debt and bankruptcy, saying the compensation process here is as bent as the Horizon system and the Post Office and Fujitsu continue to throw obstacles in the way.
Now there are words being muttered that maybe the government can mass-quash the wrongful convictions without making these poor people keep going through the courts and the system which they simply no longer trust when they are the ones who have done nothing wrong.
Now the push for the figures in charge to be held accountable are gaining volume. Paula Vennells (Lia Williams), who was the CEO of Post Office Limited between 2012 and 2019, in the midst of the scandal is currently facing calls to hand back her CBE, with a petition gaining traction following her portrayal in the drama.
Meanwhile Angela van den Bogerd (Katherine Kelly), who was the Post Office director and worked closely with Vennells walked away from the Post Office unscathed before taking up a brief role in the Football Association Wales.
These women have come in for much scrutiny in the last week, for their roles in this scandal, portrayed as borderline evil in their apparent lack of heart towards their victims.
Interestingly, former FA Chief Exec, Adam Crozier, the man who was CEO of the Post Office when it was still part of Royal Mail, who oversaw the drastic operational changes (including the Horizon roll out) and closures between 2003 and 2010 before going on to become CEO of ITV, isn’t getting much attention.
Those untouchables in the Post Office lied again and again but have never been prosecuted. The designers of the system at Fujitsu were able to meddle with individual accounts, lied about doing so and continue to be awarded government contracts.
Despite the plethora of quality investigative journalism surrounding the subject, we live in a post truth era, where mainstream media is decried while reality TV marches onwards and creates influencers to replace experts.
Well, here we are. This TV drama is a reality. It’s out there for all to see. Making a drama out of a crisis is the only thing which appears to have made everyone sit up and listen.
Now, maybe we will see some significant real-world consequences.
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