Could ITV drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office help the Horizon scandal victims' pursuit of justice?

The scandal was described as "one of the biggest miscarriages of justice" in history after hundreds of people were given criminal convictions. Credit: ITV

The Horizon Post office scandal has been described as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice the UK has ever seen and now it is playing out on ITV as prime time drama in the form of Mr Bates Vs The Post Office.

ITV News reporter Nick Wallis has reporting on the scandal for years, writing a book on the topic and working as a series consultant on the new ITV drama. Here, he writes about the impact the series could have on those still pursuing justice after all these years.

I've always said reporting on this story has been the greatest privilege of my career.

Mr Bates vs The Post Office has created this sort of huge impact, this halo, I guess, around the story or a spotlight on it. I have been doing stories on the Post Office with ITV News for a long time, but the drama can just really take it out of its bubble and shine a light on it across the whole country.

I remember speaking to 30 people in a backroom of a pub in Liverpool about this scandal just after my book had come out. And there were some people, who had wandered in off the street.

Four subpostmasters, who'd been affected by the scandal, had turned up, just because they wanted to hear this on a stage for the first time.

And at the end of it, this bewildered Scouser just put her hand up and said: "What can we do? What can we do?" And one of the subpostmasters in the audience turned to her and said: "Tell everyone."

Because that's what they want - these people were so visible in their communities and they suffered shame when they were kicked out of their positions.

They were very proud to be subpostmasters and then suddenly this cloak of shame descended upon them and the whispering campaign started in their communities. Many of them have had to hide away - I spoke to some subpostmasters who didn't leave their houses for a year.

Watch the trailer for ITV's Mr Bates vs the Post Office

As a journalist, I would always say: tell the story. Politicians react to what public sentiment is.

And whilst it's all very well to take things through the courts and hope that someone's going to report on it, the heat of public opinion can expedite things very, very quickly. We know that governments make decisions based on what is a priority for the public.

Actors Toby Jones and Julie Hesmondhalgh play Alan Bates and his partner Suzanne Sercombe in the ITV drama. Credit: ITV

I get the sense right now that there is a lot of heat being generated by the drama, which could have really interesting spinoffs in ways that we can't predict. But we know that a lot more people are aware of the story.

It's created an audience for the story, so more journalists are going to start writing about it, more investigations are going to be carried out into areas that we may not even have thought of yet.

And I think that will speed up and expedite the process by which subpostmasters get some kind of justice and maybe some kind of accountability for those responsible for these horrendous decisions.

You can listen to the full interview with Nick Wallis about his role in producing the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office in our What You Need To Know podcast

But that's the sort of glorious unpredictability of putting something out into the public domain. The more people hear about this, the more people take it off in their own directions.

"I'm not hopeful"

I sincerely hope that some of the professionals who've been following this for a number of months now within their own sectors of the IT industry, corporate governance, in-house legal counsel, the criminal justice system, the Ministry of Justice, politicians will look at this as a lesson and a warning and just say: "Right, what can I learn as a human being and as a professional about how to deal with people within processes going forward?

Monica Dolan as Jo Hamilton, a subpostmaster from Hampshire. Credit: ITV

"And what can my industry and my peers learn from this scandal so that we try to do our best to minimize anything like this happening again?"

But I'm not hopeful. I look at all the other scandals in public life, the infected blood scandal, Windrush, the banking crisis, Hillsborough. And you look at them and you look at how many people were properly held to account and what we've learned as a result of it.

And they just seem to keep coming. Until people in this country - civil servants, unaccountable bureaucrats, people who are insulated by wealth and their learning and their professional bodies - until those people know that it is easier for them to make a difficult decision than it is just to cover their backsides and hope it all goes away, we will continue to have these huge scandals in public life. 

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