2024i12, Friday: "I can see your bum in that."

2024i12, Friday: "I can see your bum in that."
Photo by Chris Galbraith on Unsplash

I'm working on something about whether the Fraud Act 2006 could be used for prosecutions in relation to the Horizon scandal. Not quite there yet. Give me a bit longer.

In the meantime, though, the rich and rotten vein of bandwagon-jumping by politicians following the superb ITV series Mr Bates vs the Post Office (like Joshua Rozenberg, I find the Americanism of "vs" a bit grating; but then I remind myself that this isn't a case citation but a TV show title, and reel my neck in) has triggered two thoughts, which I'd like to share.

Firstly, the cultural issue. The evidence coming out through the Horizon inquiry is confirming what many people believed already: that something was very wrong in how the Post Office operated throughout. Groupthink, warped priorities including a laser-focus on the supposed greater good of the organisation over the fate of individuals, and an apparent abnegation of professional and ethical standards, to name three.

Hallmarks of a culture that had forgotten the cardinal rule: that if you don't encourage people to speak up, and protect them when they do, no-one will do so. It's too damn' risky. Managers who don't want to hear the truth never will.

(The ITV show tells the story of a former postmaster, Michael Rudkin, who became aware of a fundamental Horizon problem when he visited Fujitsu in 2008. His wife was wrongly accused and convicted of stealing £44,000, and he was sacked. Not exactly an incentive to raise your head above the parapet. And then there's Richard Roll, the Fujitsu whistleblower, whose - as it turned out true and devastating allegations gave rise to smears and lies in response.)

Which is why, when I was working in investigations for two large banks, I always promised people who blew the whistle that unless I was satisfied they were acting maliciously, I'd let myself get sacked before giving away their name. I came close only once: when an investigation into someone who, frankly, had been on my radar for years ended up unsubstantiated, and their boss - the CEO of that country's business - demanded I tell him who'd reported them. I turned him down. After uttering those immortal words, "Do you know who I am?" (my answer: well, it's on your door, so... yes), he threatened to call my boss and have me removed. I wrote my boss's number and email address down on a piece of paper for him. I never heard anything more of it.

Of course, not everyone has to act confidentially. What's even more important is that people are alive to the possibility of a screwup, and feel it's OK to point it out in near-real time.

So in training, I'd sometimes remind people of the story of the Emperor's New Clothes.

A sign of an unhealthy organisation, I'd say, was one in which (as Pratchett once put it), the little boy would have been frogmarched away by soldiers, his parents told firmly to make sure that he never told lies like that again, and then shortly thereafter the whole family would quietly have disappeared, all trace of their lives expunged.

Whereas healthy organisations would have people who actually felt safe to utter those immortal words:

"I can see your bum in that."

Words to live by.

(Further excellent thought about this kind of thing is at The Conversation, which notes the combination of factors which made so many sub-postmasters keep quiet about their mistreatment for so long.)

Secondly, there's the chutzpah of our current rulers.

This problem has existed for almost a quarter of a century. Journalistic heroes like Rebecca Thomson and Karl Flinders at Computer Weekly, all kinds of people at Private Eye, and Nick Wallis have been reporting on it for almost 20 years.

For anyone in a position of authority - let alone someone in the government that has overseen the state-owned entity at the heart of the scandal for the past 13-plus years - to express anything but mortified apology at this point is gross. (I realise that the first decade of Horizon misconduct was under Labour. But the Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance was formed in 2009, and the years since 2010 are those in which the true iniquity became known. And, of course, it was the currently-governing party which decided, in the 2019 New Year's Honours list, to give Paula Vennells a CBE - by which time the Bates litigation, during which it was obvious to all that the Post Office had misconducted itself appallingly, was almost at an end.

To try to take some credit - as Rishi Sunak now appears to be doing - for doing something about it? I can't decide whether it's arrogance, stupidity at the kind of extreme level that only intelligent people can achieve, or both. (The fact that - if Marina Hyde can be believed - he did so while saying Horizon was "something that happened in the 90s" encourages me towards the stupidity option, but the two aren't mutually exclusive.)

More than anything else, it reminds of one of my favourite cinematic moments: in Casablanca, when Captain Renault marches into Rick's Bar - after the crowd (in fact made up of Free French extras, in a movie filmed in 1942) have just sung La Marseillaise like it's never been sung before - and closes it down because he's "shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here". (At 2:40 in the above clip.)

I'm hoping, however, that the next line is not prophetic. A waiter walks up to the good Captain, hands him some cash, and say, sotto voce: "Your winnings, sir." Winnings? For this shower? Sweet Lord. No.

As a further note: there are hundreds of pages in the below-linked docs. But for any lawyer, particularly any litigator, the collected Bates v Post Office judgments are compelling and in my view mandatory reading. The Horizon Issues judgment in particular lays bare Horizon's misfiring workings throughout a period in which sub-postmasters and the Courts were told, firmly, that the Post Office had somehow managed to acquire the only perfectly-functioning large-scale public sector computing system in UK (possibly human) history.

Equally (if not more) compelling and necessary is the Hamilton judgment, in which it becomes apparent that the factors which made the prosecutions unsafe and unjust had been known about for years.

The judgments are easy to find. But for ease of reference the principal ones are:

Two final, final footnotes.

Firstly, it's public knowledge that I am retained by the Post Office to advise on its investigation of one element of investigative practice. That engagement is about the presence of racist language in a historical investigation document, not about the workings of Horizon. I must make it absolutely clear that nothing I write here arises from anything I've learned from or in that engagement; I would be committing a grave ethical breach otherwise. All of the above derives from publicly-available material. I was and am honoured to be part of that engagement, and the (newly-recruited) investigative team I'm working with on it have shown nothing but complete professionalism. It's a privilege to be their colleague.

Secondly, I'm still getting to grips with how Ghost (my new web host) works. Which resulted in the email on 10 January containing (and I thought linking to) the post about December's Court of Appeal case having a broken link. I've tried to sort out a redirect to the live story from the link in the email, but for the moment have had to admit defeat. Sorry for that.