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Why the Post Office Horizon scandal only really hit the headlines when TV delivered a story

09/01/2024

One of the biggest reactions from many people to the TV drama on the Post Office Horizon scandal seems to be wonderment that such a big miscarriage of justice could take place in the UK without them hearing anything about it, writes Simon Burch.

Nine hundred subpostmasters accused, 93 wrongful convictions – with many people going to prison – and a group of 555 individuals taking the Post Office to the High Court in 2019, all going under the radar?

How could this sequence of events, now brought to life on Mr Bates vs The Post Office through the talents of screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes, possibly occur without anyone taking a blind bit of notice?

It’s true, it’s a massive story, but to say that it took place under the radar isn’t true. The story was broken by Computer Weekly in 2008 and the unfolding story had been covered in the media for years.

Two years ago, when the Court of Appeal cleared the subpostmasters of any wrongdoing, the newspapers – often their local papers – told their stories, including that of Noel Thomas, a subpostmaster in Anglesey (played by Ifan Huw Dafydd in the TV series) who had been stripped of his role as a county councillor and sent to prison for nine months for false accounting.

Google it. You’ll find the story easily, hidden in plain sight, you might say.

This was a big story, reported on regularly, yet despite this, it took a TV drama to bring the issue to national attention, prompting questions in Parliament and provoking more than 100,000 people to call for former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells to be stripped of her CBE – a demand that was met when she handed it back voluntarily.

The fact that the innocent accused are finally getting their stories heard on a wider scale and the top brass are finally facing the music is hugely welcome, albeit many lives have already been ruined as the scandal rumbled on for more than 20 years.

And it may well be a hollow victory for people like Alan Bates, whose on-screen depiction by Toby Jones has earned him national plaudits and even a free holiday, courtesy of Richard Branson, who has just offered to roll out the red carpet for him on his private Caribbean island.

There are very many lessons to be learned from this. It has shone a light on the way we unthinkingly make decisions based on what computers and technology tell us rather than humans and shows how groupthink and powerful people’s own ambitions can ride roughshod over ordinary people.

For me, the biggest takeaway is how the media works, how boring and unremarkable reality is and, as always, how, in the words of Gwyneth Hughes herself, “if you really want to get people’s attention, tell them a story. And in this case, a true story.”

This is a theme which runs through our work at Penguin PR as much as is possible when we are trying to raise awareness of our clients, using our experience as journalists (Gwyneth Hughes is also a former journalist) to create stories about them.

While some stories write themselves, this often takes a great deal of creativity and news-crafting, because the trick with a PR campaign is to make it regular, consistent and engaging over a sustained period of time.

This is the same challenge that faces anyone who does their own or their organisation’s social media, who will best understand that it’s the posts which feature people, or things that people like, which will perform better. They will have photos and will tell a story, they will have adapted themes that your followers are familiar with while reflecting what’s happening in the wider world.

By contrast, they won’t be sales messages and they are unlikely to be Canvas bullet-pointing your products and services.

None of this is rocket science. Social media is no different to traditional media, which knows, as Gwyneth Hughes knows, that if you want to engage with people, make people the subject of your story.

This is why the Post Office scandal TV programme is deliberately focussed on an individual, whose human experiences reflect the bigger picture.

It also taps into a story we are already very familiar with – David vs Goliath, Luke Skywalker vs the Empire, Frodo vs Sauron – where someone small, through bravery, guile and persistence, takes on, and takes down, a mightier opponent.

It’s also neat, tidy and concise. Part of the reason why the real-life coverage of the Post Office scandal failed to land was that it took so long, and was so complex. People’s attention spans are short – which is why stories have to be easy to understand and have to keep moving.

All of these techniques are applicable to social media, with a bit of thought and creativity and buy in from everybody else.

That said, perhaps the biggest takeaway – and I say this as a former journalist – is what the Post Office scandal reveals about our country’s relationship with media.

We are privileged, I believe, to have a competitive, free press, that is by no means perfect but which has licence to investigate what it likes.

This is driven by what it terms public interest and includes court cases and the goings on in Parliament. And, of course, there is a commercial interest, since news is a commodity and the success of a media organisation is getting as many people interested in their news platform as possible, a task which requires supplying stories they are actually interested in.

All of which brings me back to the original point. The country is currently gripped by the Post Office scandal yet, as it unfolded in real time, very few people knew anything about it, and it was only when it appeared on TV that they took notice of it en masse.

Is this a failure of our news media industry to make important matters engaging? Or has keeping in touch with the daily news become a niche activity, and it’s only when real life hits channels associated with entertainment that the biggest scandals in our country’s history come to light?

Personally, I feel while it’s a bit of both, sadly I think it’s more of the latter. There are so many easy distractions which get in the way of searching for and consuming news content that it means that quality, important stories can get lost in the flood of what’s known as info-tainment.

If we all believe it’s important to hold the powerful to account, then I think we all have a role to play by staying abreast of the news. We don’t need to be news junkies – the news is too depressing for that, but we do need to invest in our media if we want them to be our eyes and ears.

We can’t just wait until these stories are packaged neatly for TV many years after ordinary people’s lives and reputations have long been ruined before crying foul and demanding justice.

This blog was written and shared by Simon Burch. Do you want to find out more about how a blog can help your business? Find out how we can help by getting in touch.

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