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Mr Bates vs The Post Office: After three Panorama investigations and 1,000+ newspaper stories, all it took was 9.2m viewers for ITV drama to spark a police investigation

The first episode of ITV’s Mr Bates vs The Post Office has now clocked up 9.2m viewers on ITV and ITVX in the seven days since its NYD debut, making it ITV’s best new drama for three years since the Pembrokeshire Murders in January 2021 when the country was in lockdown, and more than doubling the 3.9m overnight linear viewers when the show launched last week.

The four episodes are also the most watched programmes on any channel so far this year. The series, including the documentary, has reached 14.8m. 

While ITV’s accountants are doubtless delighted, for the hundreds of former Post Office employees affected by the scandal the news that, 24 years after the faulty Horizon system was installed in Post Offices across the UK, the Toby Jones-starring drama has finally inspired the Metropolitan Police to launch an investigation into “potential fraud offences” at the Post Office highlighted by the series is probably a greater cause for celebration.

What’s the story?

The Horizon accounting system was first rolled out in Post Offices nationwide in 1999, and sub-postmasters across the UK soon began reporting bugs in the system after it falsely reported shortfalls, some for many thousands of pounds.

The complaints fell on deaf ears, however, and several victims report being told that they were the only people reporting problems. Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses based on, now demonstrably false, information from Horizon.

Some went to prison for false accounting and theft. Others were financially ruined as their contracts stated they were responsible for any financial shortfall. Yet more fled into exile abroad to escape the ‘debts’ brought about by the scandal. Many suffered damage to their mental health. Several committed suicide and at least 60 are known to have died so far without ever successfully clearing their names.

The first settlement between the Post Office and a group of postmasters making a civil litigation claim was made in December 2019. The Criminal Cases Review Commission referred its first cases to the appeals courts in March 2020, and in April 2021 the Court of Appeal quashed the convictions of 39 postmasters.

Fast forward to the present day and still only 93 convictions have been overturned, while no one has yet been held accountable for the suffering and injustice caused to the hundreds of falsely accused and convicted postmasters.

And who is Mr Bates?

The Mr Bates of the show’s title refers to Alan Bates, a postmaster from Conwy in North Wales who first took his own case to Computer Weekly in 2004. The mag may seem an odd choice, but its reporter Tony Collins was known for his investigation into the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994 that may have been caused by software problems.

Plus, Post Offices and accounting software don’t quite tick the right boxes for a glitzy Hollywood exposé.

The first investigation of the case wasn’t actually published until 2009, by Computer Weekly’s Rebecca Thomson, who by now had managed to gather seven sub-postmasters willing to speak out. Since then, Computer Weekly has published around 350 stories about Horizon.

Data published recently in The Sun shows that, once the niche mag had got the ball rolling, the mainstream press weren’t far behind. The Times published 383 stories about the scandal in the 15 years before the ITV drama, and the Daily Mail 343. The Daily Telegraph published 234, The Sunday Times published 152, the Daily Express published 127, and The Sun itself published 101.

As well as the three Panorama investigations of the affair, the first in 2015, there have been numerous radio and TV investigations, from Radio 4 to Inside Out to S4C Welsh-language current affairs programme Taro Naw.

Yet all it took was 9.2m viewers (technically slightly fewer – somewhere between last Monday’s 3.9m and today’s 9.2m as the investigation was announced at the weekend), and like a flash the Metropolitan Police confirmed that the The Post Office is under criminal investigation over Horizon for the first time.

In further developments late Tuesday, Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells, who became CEO of the Post Office in 2012 – the year the company itself began investigating allegations about Horizon – announced she will hand back her CBE for ‘services to the Post Office’ after a long-running online petition surged from around 4,000 signatures to over a million following the show’s broadcast, while the government suggested it was looking at ways of overturning hundreds of remaining convictions en masse rather than going through the lengthy legal process that has held proceedings up so far.

So all’s well that ends well?

It would be somewhat trite to come to a conclusion about the power of great drama to affect real change given the 24 years of suffering foisted on hundreds of innocents trying to make a living, but the show’s producers Little Gem and ITV Studios should probably give themselves a pat on the back nonetheless.

Horizon is still in use by the Post Office, although the company notes on its website that “the current version of the system, introduced from 2017, was found in the group litigation to be robust, relative to comparable systems.”

Mr Bates is taking a well-earned holiday after Richard Branson gifted him an all-expenses-paid trip to Necker Island live on This Morning yesterday.

*Update: On Wednesday morning (January 10) former postmasters took to BBC Breakfast and 5 Live en masse to discuss their experiences.

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