The prosecution of 983 UK Post Office workers accused of financial crimes due to faulty accounting software represents the biggest single series of wrongful convictions in British legal history, according to the UK's CCRC (Criminal Cases Review Commission).
Durham alumna Rebecca Thomson played a key role in uncovering this injustice.
Rebecca, who attended St Mary’s College from 2001 to 2004, was a young journalist working for Computer Weekly magazine when she first reported on problems with the Post Office’s accounting software, Horizon, back in 2009.
She initially spoke with seven sub-postmasters who faced ‘bankruptcy, prosecution and disrupted livelihoods’ due to alleged shortfalls in their Post Office accounts.
Over the following decade hundreds more innocent people suffered wrongful prosecution for theft, false accounting or fraud, as faulty software, not criminality, was found to be responsible for the 'missing' money.
Now, 15 years later, the matter is finally getting the full attention it deserves, partly due to the UK television drama ‘Mr Bates vs the Post Office’, watched by over 9 million people this month.
The series' central character, Mr Bates, reflects the real-life Alan Bates, featured in Rebecca’s original 2009 article.
An ongoing public enquiry seeks justice for the Post Office workers, and Fujitsu, the firm behind the faulty software, has now apologised publicly for its part in the affair.
As the issue continues to dominate UK headlines, we caught up with Rebecca to discuss how it feels that the story she broke all those years ago now has the whole country talking.
You spent more than six-months investigating this story back in 2009, when did you first sense that this was a major miscarriage of justice?
As soon as I spoke to (postmasters) Alan, Lee and Jo I agreed with them that something weird was going on.
As we found more and more people experiencing accounting issues, I got the sense that if I had the resources or means to somehow reach every single postmaster in the UK, a sizeable proportion of them would be experiencing the same issues. But I just had no way of proving how widespread it was at that point.
A public enquiry is ongoing and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the introduction of a new law to swiftly exonerate and compensate those wrongly convicted. What was your assessment of the situation at the time of your reporting, and did you hope to see immediate action such as an investigation into the Horizon software?
We had no idea at that point in 2009 that over 800 people would be prosecuted as the prosecutions continued right up to 2015. At the time I was thinking there was a case for the Post Office to answer - there were clearly issues around this technology.
I hoped that pressure from news coverage would force the Post Office to look into it, rather than just immediately assuming and insisting that the postmasters were lying. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out like that, partly because they managed to completely squash the story. I don’t think I ever would have foreseen all that is happening now because the Post Office has spent so many years being slow to respond.
The ITV drama ‘Mr Bates vs the Post Office’ had the nation gripped, averaging 9.8m viewers and attracting 10.9m at its peak. Have you seen it, and if so, what did you think about it?
Yes, I saw a BAFTA screening of it in November and I thought it was brilliant. I found it really emotionally affecting. I thought they did a great job with it, but I did not foresee that there would be such a strong reaction to it.
How surprised are you by the public’s response to the ITV drama and the subsequent attention in Parliament and mainstream media?
I was completely bowled over by the public response. I can’t quite explain it. I think it was probably a confluence of a few factors, including the timing of early January when lots of people are watching TV at home.
There’s always plenty to watch and plenty of things to be angry about and I think it’s lucky that this touched a nerve. There are a lot of scandals, like the infected blood scandal maybe, that never achieve this level of public awareness, so I was very pleased that it had the impact that it did.
You are widely recognised as the first reporter to break the story, featured in a BBC Panorama documentary, and briefly portrayed in the ITV drama. How does it feel to be thrust into the limelight now, more than a decade after you first broke the story?
It feels quite weird. There was a tiny bit of attention after the most recent Panorama documentary but nothing like the current scale of requests I’m receiving. Obviously, this is not over, only three people have received final compensation and none of them are coming out of this rich. People are probably still going to have to sell their houses to get through their retirement.
Compensation is the ongoing issue: people will continue to die without receiving any because it’s taking too long. The way it’s being administered has been described as a scandal within a scandal. I’ve tried to say yes to as many publicity requests as I can because I hope it helps to keep talking about it. For me, the main thing is getting compensation for the victims, and I want to help make sure that doesn’t get forgotten.
Computer Weekly continued to pursue the matter after you left the publication in 2010, publishing 350 related stories over the last decade. But why do you think it took so long for the mainstream media to give it the attention it deserved?
I think there're a few things. It didn’t help that the Post Office was lying at the beginning, telling editors that there was nothing in it. Also, it’s a hard story to sell. It’s difficult to tug on people’s heartstrings when you have to include all this relatively dry detail about accounting software and legal issues.
Panorama and Private Eye covered it quite early, I think The Daily Mail was the earliest of the nationals. There’s been a lot said about the nationals not picking up on it, but I think when they did, people weren’t clicking on it, people weren’t writing in about it, they just didn’t get it.
It’s hard to make that leap from accounting software to suicide, financial ruin and people losing their homes. It’s hard to understand the story at a glance, like why is accounting software leading to this? The media can only really do what they think their readers are interested in, in the same way that MPs are more likely to act on things their constituents are raising. But the press did pick up on it and the plugging away done by lots of journalists over the years helped make that ITV drama possible.
After you graduated from Durham in 2004 with a BA Honours in Economics, you completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Newspaper Journalism at Cardiff University. Did you always want to be a journalist and if so, why?
Yes, I pretty much always wanted to be a journalist or a writer. Being a journalist is a tough job, but you get to speak to so many different people and learn a lot about lots of different things. I loved writing and I think I was attracted to the idealism of holding power to account.
The University has a proud history of producing excellent journalists, not least the late Sir Harry Evans. How did your time at Durham influence or prepare you for a career in journalism?
Writing for Palatinate (Durham’s student newspaper) definitely influenced me. I was the editor at one point, although I don’t think I was very good at it! I was a bit intimidated by Palatinate because the writers in the year above me were all amazing and I found them all really impressive. They inspired me.
Palatinate is still going strong, and the University supports the Sir Harry Evans Global Fellowship in Investigative Journalism for early career reporters. What advice do you have for any aspiring journalists studying at Durham right now?
Journalism is obviously not an easy career to go into. You tend to work very hard and there is always too much to do. A lot of people that go into journalism are values-driven. So think of the stories that are important to you and try to find an editor who can give you the space and the encouragement to work on those things.
If you’re interested in investigative work and social justice stories, in many ways it’s a better time than it has been for a while because there’re places like the Bureau of Investigative journalism offering opportunities to do that kind of work. There are so many different platforms now that you probably don’t have to rely on the traditional journalism career path as much as I did.
Rebecca remains in journalism and is currently working as a freelance reporter based in London.