“I carried the shame – I refuse to carry it any longer.” These words from Mohammed Rasul really cut to the core of the emotion being felt by subpostmasters; they embody the depth of the plight endured by hundreds of victims over the last two decades as part of the Post Office Horizon scandal.
It is a staggering miscarriage of justice, steered by a hotbed of misinformation, deceit, wrongful convictions and technological flaws. The only silver lining is that the scandal is finally receiving the attention it merits – let’s hope just compensation follows suit.
Yet while the saga’s surge to the front pages has been triggered by ITV’s hit drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, one trade publication showcased in the show has been pivotal to keeping the story alive since 2009: Computer Weekly.
As national outlets remained relatively quiet on the matter, Computer Weekly provided consistent coverage. In fact, you can find a whole list of articles the publication has written on the saga since it broke the story in 2009. It is quite the reporting feat.
Above all, this stream of reporting kept the embers of the subpostmasters’ quest for justice smouldering and ready to reignite again.
The power of trade publications
Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster and protagonist of ITV’s drama, first contacted Computer Weekly about his dismay with Horizon in 2004. Although his letter wasn’t covered, when Lee Castleton also reached out about the issue in 2008, it prompted an investigation by the publication. It was perfectly placed to give a voice to those who had suffered at the hands of the faulty IT system, in spite of them not knowing what was causing the issues.
In episode two of the series, Alan remarks: “The trouble is no one watches local news.” At which point, the scene cuts to former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells watching said coverage. The point being, you never know who could be watching/reading any platform.
Computer Weekly is no small player by any means. Quite the opposite. The outlet has been a leader in the tech sector for decades: it attracts close to a million visitors to its website each month, has over 200,000 subscribers to its digital magazine, and is valued as a go-to source of information for anyone working in IT, tech and beyond.
This specialism and specificity of reach allowed the publication to pick holes in Fujitsu’s system, uphold the views of those impacted, and help attract more subpostmasters to come forward and tell their story. The investigations led by Computer Weekly, coupled with its support for the subpostmasters, offered a bedrock for the story’s ignition into the mainstream.
Bringing the story to life
The heart of PR is discerning how to tell a story and convey a message that will resonate with the people you are trying to affect. This is something that the victims of the scandal should never have even had to consider, yet alone carry out. But as events turned out, Alan Bates and his fellow compatriots were compelled to find ways of appealing to ministers and fighting back against their injustice.
ITV’s retelling is a wonderful showcase of how the arts and drama have the ability to be actors of societal change. And while PR is known and used to promote people, brands, companies and products, it too has the power to amplify social causes. But in the same way a company has to cut through the noise to get heard, the unfortunate, unjust reality is that such stories are confronted with the same barrier. They are in need of bringing to life.
Protect trade and local reporting at all costs
It’s a scary thought that so many claims and pleas to question Fujitsu’s Horizon system fell on deaf ears – and, even worse, were turned against the claimants. Gaslighting at its finest.
As local reporting dwindles and budgets are thin, if this scandal proves anything, it’s that we must cherish and protect these precious sources of information. They can tell the stories that others might not be willing to cover, challenge disinformation and hold those who mislead inquiries or ignore accusations accountable. And they provide a rich fountain of coverage the national outlets feed off. It’s why they need to be protected at all costs.
The power of trade publications, the power of local and sector-specific reporting, remains as potent – and as needed – as ever. Hats off to Computer Weekly for leading the way.