Proper Gander – Lights… Camera… Political Action?
The response to Mr Bates vs The Post Office was a surprise reminder that TV programmes can still have an impact, even with so much else on our screens competing for our attention. The four-part series shown on ITV dramatised the campaign by ex-Post Office staff against their convictions for theft, fraud and false accounting. Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of subpostmasters were prosecuted, with thousands more suspected of fiddling their accounts. Consequently, many lost their homes as well as their jobs, fell into debt and some ended their own lives because of the pressure. Their convictions were based on discrepancies and shortfalls recorded on their Post Office branch’s accounting software, Horizon. When some subpostmasters realised there was a pattern of innocent people being convicted, they grouped together and formed The Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance to co-ordinate their campaign. In 2019, England’s High Court ruled that the Horizon system was faulty, acknowledging the real source of the accounting discrepancies. So far, only 93 subpostmasters have had their convictions overturned. In 2020 the government established a public inquiry which was ongoing while Mr Bates vs The Post Office was being broadcast.
Toby Jones portrays Alan Bates, who founded the campaign group and persistently worked to persuade lawyers and MPs that the convictions were unjust. The story is one of ‘skint, little people’ as Alan says, who found themselves victimised by the rules, procedures and economic prerogatives of powerful institutions, and who are fighting back. The Post Office is represented and defended by then-Chief Executive Paula Vennells and Head of Partnerships Angela van den Bogerd, both played as shifty and conspiratorial. The IT company behind Horizon, Fujitsu, is depicted as a cold, shadowy institution, but perhaps with less emphasis than might be expected. While the drama ends with a call for the government to take more responsibility, it puts Conservatives such as James Arbuthnot and Nadhim Zahawi (who appears as himself) in a very good light. Blame is placed on the Post Office rather than the economic and legal framework which allowed for the whole situation.
While Mr Bates vs The Post Office has raised awareness of the scandal beyond its 10 million viewers, it has been reported extensively before. Problems with the Horizon system were first highlighted in 2009 by Computer Weekly magazine, which has since published hundreds more articles, alongside investigations by Private Eye, Panorama (see Proper Gander June 2022) and journalist Nick Wallis, whose 2021 book The Great Post Office Scandal was serialised in the Daily Mail. The issue has been in the background for years, but Mr Bates vs The Post Office has managed to give it unprecedented attention. After its episodes were first screened in early January, a different angle on the topic was reported on news media each day: the way that suspects were interrogated, the millions paid to Fujitsu, the petition to strip Paula Vennells of her CBE, new legislation to quash the convictions, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak supporting a knighthood for Alan Bates.
Why has it taken Mr Bates vs The Post Office, rather than any of the previous exposés, to galvanise this action? As Marshall McLuhan said, ‘the medium is the message’, and the docudrama format of Mr Bates vs The Post Office enables it to have more of an impact than a straightforward documentary or written article. All these formats are interpretations of research into what happened, with the difference between them being in how this research is presented. In re-enacting what happened, a docudrama can employ the techniques used in filmed drama to engage the viewer. Dialogue is carefully chosen by the writer and rehearsed by the actor, often working with the real people being portrayed. Scenes are lit, filmed, scored and edited in ways intended to draw in the viewer to how the producers want the story to be told. When this is done proficiently, the re-creation of an event can have more of an emotional impact than being told about those events or even watching real footage. This gives docudramas an advantage in making the viewer feel emotionally invested in an issue, which is needed to fuel any political action. Only knowing that something is wrong or needs changing isn’t enough.
Previous docudramas have succeeded in shaping prevailing attitudes to events. The most well-known remains 1966’s Cathy Come Home, which showed a family becoming homeless and then being further persecuted by the state machinery and lack of adequate support services. The script was based on thorough research and largely filmed on location (a rarity at the time) with hand-held cameras and improvisation, giving additional authenticity. While Cathy Come Home drew attention to homelessness and led to the formation of the charity Crisis, the only reform to legislation it prompted was to allow husbands to stay with their wives and children in homeless hostels. As for wider change, director Ken Loach said that the film hasn’t achieved this: ‘it all gets smothered in this bear-hug of approbation, so that the energy of it is dissipated’ (tinyurl.com/3uasacat). A docudrama which had a particular impact on policy was The Day After, broadcast in America during 1983. This prediction of what a third world war would be like convinced then-president Ronald Reagan to pull back on nuclear proliferation. Hillsborough, shown on ITV in 1996, took a different approach to these by portraying real people, as does Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Hillsborough dramatised the campaign by the families of those who died during the Sheffield Wednesday football disaster to overturn the official verdicts of accidental death. When the deaths were instead ruled unlawful in 2016, MP Steve Rotheram stated the docudrama was ‘massively influential’ in the outcome (tinyurl.com/yeyucap4).
The momentum generated for a couple of weeks in January by Mr Bates vs The Post Office looks like it will speed up a resolution for the subpostmasters which will hopefully improve their situations. However, the government’s apparent enthusiasm for the convictions to be overturned is perhaps due more to them wanting to attract support in a general election year than to them being concerned that the campaign will develop further if they don’t take action. Still, Mr Bates vs The Post Office has reminded us that TV has some strength, especially in the format of a docudrama, and the programme also optimistically shows how people driven by a common cause can self-organise and co-operate.