The Art and Uses of Lying: Or, a short introduction to contemporary British Public Life

Henry Staunton, past Chairman of the Post Office (sacked by Kemi Badenoch, the Business Minister, and self-righteous prig) claims he was told to stall Post Office payouts, so the government cold “limp into” the election:

“‘Early on, I was told by a fairly senior person to stall on spend on compensation and on the replacement of Horizon, and to limp, in quotation marks – I did a file note on it – limp into the election,’ Staunton said.
‘It was not an anti-postmaster thing, it was just straight financials. I didn’t ask, because I said ‘I’m having no part of it – I’m not here to limp into the election, it’s not the right thing to do by postmasters.’ The word ‘limp’ gives you a snapshot of where they were.” (Sunday Times, Guardian). It is doubtful if the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail will be front-paging this story soon.

It is to be hoped that the Post Office Inquiry follows up, and the police add this to their investigation, because we require salutary retributive justice for this scandal, to prevent its recurrence. Staunton went on to allege that:

“Read [Post Office CEO] wrote to the justice secretary, Alex Chalk, last month in an attempt to persuade the government against mass exonerations.
The letter included a legal opinion from the Post Office’s solicitors, Peters & Peters, which suggested many convictions could be defended on appeal, Staunton told the Sunday Times. He added: ‘Basically it was trying to undermine the exoneration argument. It was, ‘Most people haven’t come forward because they are guilty as charged’ – ie, think very carefully about exoneration.’

Staunton said he told Read the opinions in the letter were not endorsed by him or ‘at least half’ of the Post Office’s board members, and that ‘if this got out, we’d be crucified, and rightly so’” (Guardian).

Now Kemi Badenoch is accusing the ex-Post Office Chairman, that she sacked – of lying; and of “failing to get justice for the Postmasters” (Telegraph). The solution to that problem was available long before Badenoch sacked Staunton. The Government should have removed the Post Office entirely from supervision of the compensation long before. To allow the Post Office, which was responsible for bringing the criminal charges against the Postmasters, for the prosecutions, and for the evidence for the convictions (in some cases now proven in court to be wrongful), mostly based on a faulty computer system; to be placed in charge to supervise, and exercise control over the whole compensation and decision making process to rectify the wrong it had itself inflicted on the Postmasters, was a transparently obvious and egregious conflict of interest. Frankly, even a fool could see the perversity of the solution the Government chose; which makes its egregious character even worse.

Removing the Post Office would, of course no doubt place the Government and Badenoch directly in the responsibility ‘firing line’; where it justly belongs – as the Post Office is simply the Government’s creature. That, of course would never do, because the Post Office now principally serves as the Government’s tethered scapegoat.. The fact that at best the Government has not been supervising or monitoring the Post Office, or shown any interest in what it is doing, until the whole matter became politically unmanageable overnight through a TV drama; itself raises questions requiring urgent answers, I trust either the Post Office Enquiry, or the police investigation will rigorously pursue and discover as soon as possible. None of this, however provides any excuse for clear ministerial incompetence and neglect of public, civic duty, to offer the kindest take available.

The unedifying spectacle of all those involved in fixing the problem, collapsing quickly into accusation, or counter-accusation of lying, is far beneath the standards of executive management of a crisis we should be entitled to expect of Ministers; but it happens because the Ministers responsible are not up to the task they have set, or are incapable of acting decisively, timeously, or wisely in its execution. The Buck stops with Government, and if Badenoch doesn’t like the heat, there is an exit door in every kitchen; she would be advised to take it.

The reason that the Post Office scandal is among the most serious of the many crises we now face, is however easy to overlook. The Postmasters and Postmistresses were charged, tried, convicted, and jailed in their hundreds. Nobody noticed. Some eventually had their convictions overturned after an almost twenty year struggle. Still, few noticed. Many of the convicted had established careers in the Post Office, or were of unimpeachable character throughout their lives. They suffered imprisonment, the ruin of their reputations, family disruption, and had their money taken from them (now, allegedly stolen by the Post Office). Some have suffered for almost twenty five years; and in many cases, still no redemption, and in most cases, no compensation. Little Government attention was given to a grievous wrong, and maladministration under the government’s watch; until a TV drama caught the full attention of the public.

The Postmasters and Postmistresses were destroyed wholesale by the State apparatus: by a monopoly business, by the Law: the Prosecution Service, the Courts, and the lawyers all failed, catastrophically. Government failed them, and still fails them. And Parliament failed them; Parliament was, with a few honourable exceptions, effectively indifferent to their plight. The Postmasters were failed by Britain. The question remains. If they can come for the Postmasters with impunity, and still not fix the gross injustice twenty five years later, or deal with it properly; what makes you think they can’t come for you, and yours? The answer was provided, I believe by the fury of the public response to the TV drama; if such a thing can happen to them, why couldn’t it happen to me?

Stick with the fury. You still need it, and so do the Postmasters and Postmistresses.

Comments (17)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    While Parliament, with a few notable exceptions, as you say, failed to take any interest in this shameful matter, the UK media were to a great extent uninterested in this matter, too.

    Was this because the postmasters and postmistresses accused were ‘little people’ – people running small general shops in small communities, which included a post office counter? Was this because of the pervasive media presumption that all humans are by instinct bad, out for personal gain if they can get away with it? This is a baleful, misanthropic view of one’s fellow human beings, which is perhaps a projection of their own personal mindset on to the rest of us. It is a mindset that views spontaneous acts of kindness towards others with no expectation of reward as the actions of fools, because in their jaundiced view we only do things for personal profit. So, large sections of the media believed to postmasters and mistresses were guilty, as accused, because ‘we all put our hands in the till if we think we can get away with it.’ In this mindset people are guilty until proven innocent. The fact that many postmasters and mistresses ‘did not come forward’ is taken as proof of guilt. There is no consideration given that the postmasters and mistresses having heard of the experiences of colleagues were feart to come forward because of potentially further accusations. Nor, would many of them have the money to pay for legal fees. And, in the eyes of the Tories and their media cheerleaders, people who are poor must be stupid and have made a ‘lifestyle choice’.

    Damningly, Labour, since the advent of Blair and Brown has to a large extent accepted this view of humanity either by not challenging it or by endorsing Tory attitudes, such as that relating to no benefits for more than two children. I know of members of the Labour Party who are uneasy at Labour’s stance, but grit their teeth and continue to vote Labour in the hope that, in power, Labour will be a bit nicer than the Tories, even though they will not do anything substantially transformative.

    Labour has failed to present an alternative narrative to seek to change the neoliberal, misanthropic hegemony. Starmer, reputedly a human rights lawyer does not speak of human rights. Indeed, he speaks only in ‘deniable’ vacuities.

    1. 240219 says:

      ‘While Parliament, with a few notable exceptions, as you say, failed to take any interest in this shameful matter, the UK media were to a great extent uninterested in this matter, too.’

      Are you sure? I found that the matter was all over the UK media. There was even a TV drama about it on ITV.

      1. Mark Howitt says:

        I think perhaps Alasdair Macdonald means that, with few exceptions, the UK media took little interest for 20 years, until the airing of the recent ITV drama in January. Among those exceptions was the tireless pursuit of the story by Private Eye and an excellent Radio 4 documentary in 2020.

        1. 240219 says:

          That’s certainly true. Private Eye and Computer Weekly covered it extensively, and the BBC made an excellent documentary about it; but, apart from that, there was very little coverage of the scandal until the ITV drama came along and the whole matter became politicised. Perhaps the most shocking about the whole terrible affair is that most of the media paid so little attention to it for so long; even Bella was silent on the whole affair until it became a useful stick.

          1. John says:

            Bella Caledonia states it is a site for political and social commentary and reflection. Bella produces on average one article every other day.
            Newspaper’s declare they are undertaking investigative journalism and they produce hundreds of articles on a daily basis.
            You are trying to compare two entirely different types of journalism.

          2. It’s true we were very late to the party and didn’t cover the story at all. At the time I didn’t think it particularly important I admit it. I’ll need to do the maths but I think we’ve averaged a story a day since 2007 without any public funding or advertising, but you are right John we do not have anything like the resources of corporate newspapers or magazines.

          3. 240220 says:

            I understand, Ed.; you need to prioritise. Like many editors, you’ll have had many much more important stories to cover and grievances to air since Computer Weekly first broke the story in 2009 and the BBC’s investigations were broadcast in 2011, 2015, and 2020.

            It’s nevertheless disappointing that it took a Conservative MP (and later peer), James Arbuthnot (portrayed by Alex Jennings in the ITV drama), to champion the plight of the subpostmasters and subpostmistresses and to co-ordinate a parliamentary working group to investigate the matter, which eventually forced the Post Office to commission an investigation by a team of forensic accountants, Second Sight, that subsequently revealed that errors in the Post Office’s financial reporting system had led to hundred being wrongly accused and convicted of theft, fraud, and false accounting.

            Should we not expect better from our 5th Estate?

          4. We definitely should, I chide myself

  2. Mike Parr says:

    Responding to Mr Macdonlad:
    “Was this because the postmasters and postmistresses accused were ‘little people’ – people running small general shops in small communities, which included a post office counter? !”
    Many were not of anglo-saxon decent. So don’t count in what passes for the (dis)United Kingdom. Sure some were white – many were not and thus don’t count. I’m not saying it was 100% racism, but one cannot discount it. Vile vile place the UK & the people that ostensibly “run it” – tory & liebore – both liable incluing “saint” Broon and the warmonger B.Liar.

  3. Sandy Watson says:

    As a septuagenarian who worked at relatively senior level in public and private sector (often public-facing roles), I have been well aware of much senior management and establishment propensity for lies, obfuscation and misdirection (some, if examined closely, would, I’m sure be labelled corruption).
    And, when pointed-out, publicly or even confidentially, this often has negative consequences for those bold enough to even mention it.
    For this to be allowed to happen, and persist, requires a degree of complicity that amazes me. How can we let this happen? Well, because almost all of us have some skin in it, some vested interest.
    So, the situation won’t be getting better any time soon. Sadly.

    1. 240220 says:

      ‘I have been well aware of much senior management and establishment propensity for lies, obfuscation and misdirection (some, if examined closely, would, I’m sure be labelled corruption).’

      Yep; me too! I would label it ‘politics’ (with a small ‘p’). It’s a dirty business, politics (as my old man used to say).

  4. Actually I calculate we’ve been publishing for 6205 days and published 7897 articles – I can’t do the maths but that’s more than one a day …

    1. John says:

      Average of 1.3 articles per day – my apologies.
      It seemed like less to me which must be a positive sign!
      An earlier article about post office scandal would have been good as the scandal exposes so many of the injustices and failures of institutions and government in Uk which have been prevalent in my lifetime.

      1. Ah, thanks for the maths, yeah the Post Office scandal passed us by – so many issues we’d like to have covered better or in more depth

  5. 240220 says:

    ‘The Postmasters and Postmistresses were charged, tried, convicted, and jailed in their hundreds. Nobody noticed.’

    Lord Arbuthnot noticed. So did the parliamentary working group he coordinated and led over the matter for more than ten years. So did Computer Weekly and the BBC.

    More a case of ‘nobody listened’ until the hit ITV drama rubbed our noses in the scandal.

  6. John S Warren says:

    Kemi Badenoch has already produced a useful immediate result. On BBC Radio 5 Live’s Nicky Campbell phone-in, I noticed that public at last has realised that the problem is now less the Post Office, but the Government (and by implication, Parliament). A public questioner made clear it was not possible to trust either the Post Office, or the Government; about anything to do with the Postmasters. Acutely, the questioner had read the reports on the Cameron Government’s awareness of Post Office activities:

    “Ministers in David Cameron’s administration were told that Post Office bosses had dropped a secret investigation that may have helped to prove postmasters’ innocence while continuing to deny that the Horizon computer system was faulty, it has been claimed.
    A 2016 internal investigation into how and why cash accounts on the Horizon IT system had been tampered with – which spanned 17 years of records – was suddenly dropped after postmasters began legal action.
    According to the BBC, ministers in Lord Cameron’s administration were told Post Office bosses had dropped the inquiry – while denying Horizon computer system was faulty. Despite the investigation, the organisation still argued in court, two years later, that it was impossible for Fujitsu to remotely access subpostmaster accounts” (‘The Independent’, 20th February, 2024).

    This is the real core of the matter. The Horizon system was introduced by the Post Office in 1999. The prosecutions and convictions began in 2000. Nobody noticed. This is how it unfolded:

    • In 2000, there were 6 shortfall convictions that relied on Horizon data.
    • In 2001, there were 41,
    • In 2002, there were 64.
    • In 2003, there were 56.
    • In 2004, there were 59.
    • In 2005, there were 68.
    • In 2006, there were 69.
    • In 2007, there were 50.
    • In 2008, there were 48.
    • In 2009, there were 70 (Nick Wallis, ‘Post Office Trial’, April, 2021).

    Until 2009 still nobody noticed, not even, it seems the diligent James Arbuthnot. It was the Postmasters themselves, under Bates that started the co-ordinated fightback; self-help, not Parliament, MPs or least of all the owner of the Post Office, the Government. The Law itself badly failed the Postmasters.

    The Post Office is the government’s tethered scapegoat. The Government leaves the Post Office in the firing line, and having to address the issues with money it doesn’t have, and its credibility in ruins; because the government fears having to face the responsibility directly; where it belongs. The key here is not even the 2016 failure of Cameron. There were 499 convictions by 2009; an average of 50 per year. There were circa 12,000 post offices in 2009, a steep fall from over 20k in 1982 (House of Commons Library, ‘Post Office Numbers’, 7th February, 2024). The persistent level of prosecutions and convictions 2000-2009 produced no interest or challenging questions from the Government, as owner of the Post Office. There was no apparent attempt to monitor the credibility, or reason for the trends, in the Post Office, Government, Parliament or even the Law. This is a failure of oversight on the grand scale. This whole situation is indefensible. The Post Office cannot be expected to be trusted by Postmasters. Neither can the Government; but the Postmasters are entitled to expect the Government finally to accept full, direct responsibility; and stand in the firing line.

    1. Hector says:

      The greatest failure in this scandal is not the post office, or the govt , or fujitsu.
      The greatest failure is the postmasters union.
      They ignored the plight of their members as the post office fleeced them and convicted them

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