Lessons from a scandal

The ITV drama ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ will surely pass into history as one of the most influential pieces of programming of modern times. For those who have been living in a very, very deep cave – or who may be reading this several years down the line the 4 part series tells the story of an unfolding tragedy. Nearly 1,000 sub post masters and mistresses prosecuted, ruined and jailed by a lethal combination of corporate negligence, acute reputational sensitivity and mendacity. For over two decades this group of people were on the receiving end of mis-justice, and their suffering has been extreme. Over 60 have died without having their names cleared, and several have taken their own lives due to the imposed stress and shame. Inaction by the authorities, made worse by the Post Office and Fujitsu (the IT contractor behind the faulty Horizon software platform), has resulted in what is described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. It took a powerful piece of drama to shine a spotlight on the whole affair and galvanise action, and even though the wheels of justice seem at last to be turning in the right direction there is still no guarantee of a successful resolution for those who have been wrongfully persecuted. The other side of the coin is that no-one has really been held accountable – or (I guess) ever will be. This must be one of the worst examples of faceless and monolithic corporate wrong doing; everyone appears sorry, but no-one is to blame.

Of course that is one of the dangers of modern societal change in late twentieth and twenty first century. The growth of enormous internet based monsters which intrude on our lives more and more, the expansion of the use of chatbots and automated telephone systems and (almost certainly) the rapid acceleration of AI takes away a human dimension which is vital to us all. Online systems certainly can be more efficient, but I suspect that most of us feel a palpable sense of relief when we finally talk to a real, empathetic person on the other end of the line. There can be a real risk of frustration and powerlessness when you are stuck in an endless loop of chatbot nonsense, or (even worse) left on hold with even more endless Vivaldi. We remove the human element at our peril – Horizon demonstrated just how badly things can go wrong when machines are faulty, human contact is insufficient and empathy and curiosity are absent as a result.

Big institutions can be efficient, there’s no doubt, but they can also lack heart. Take the example recently of a BWS student applying for a degree apprenticeship with a multinational telecoms company – first round interview online with a chatbot. What does that say about company ethics and engagement with the individual I wonder? It’s one of the reasons that I make a huge effort to get to know every one of the 400-odd sixth form students here at Bishop’s, every year, by the end of the autumn term. It’s a tough call, but it’s so worth it. Individuals matter. I want every one of them to know that they are important, I want to put a name to a face and get an understanding of each person. I’m not drawing any parallels here – but I am saying that had the Post Office actually made the effort to avoid faceless persecution and really engage with individuals then recent history could – and should – have been very different.