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The Post Office Scandal – 10 takeaways for B2B journalists

Computer Weekly deserves much credit for its role in investigating the Horizon IT scandal. Dickon Ross looks at what lessons other B2B journalists can take from their work.

By Dickon Ross

The Post Office Scandal – 10 takeaways for B2B journalists
Jo Hamilton, a former sub-postmistress, speaking at the PPA Festival.

“Have you seen the stories Computer Weekly have been doing about the IT system going wrong at the Post Office?” That question from a fellow technology journalist was when I first became aware of the investigation that all these years later has blown up into a major scandal. I can’t remember exactly when but it must have been more than fifteen years ago. And when I first heard about it, I have to admit that I too thought: “the Post Office? Really? Are you sure?”. But I also knew some of the team at Computer Weekly well enough to know that they certainly knew what they were doing. And yet, it was largely ignored, for years.

Now they are getting the recognition they deserve and two events recently have probed the story of those years of investigations at Computer Weekly and later on, some other publications. One was a BSME event with Computer Weekly Editor Bryan Glick, the former reporter for Computer Weekly who first broke the story, Rebecca Thomson, and Private Eye Editor Ian Hislop, another magazine that covered it early on. Another event was a PPA Festival session with Glick again, sub-postmistress Jo Hamilton, and Natasha Bondy, producer of the TV series, ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’. These were some of the best and most moving events I’ve seen from either organisation. The inside story they explored has many lessons for trade magazine editors and journalists. Here’s a few that I picked out.

1. Keep stuff that comes in.

Alan Bates first wrote to Tony Collins, then editor of Computer Weekly in 2004 but Collins wrote back saying he would need multiple sources. That second source turned up four years later from Lee Castleton, Collins remembered the first contact and on the basis of multiple sources gave it to Rebecca Thomson to investigate.

2. Take the time.

For her first piece, Thomson spent a year talking to twenty sub-postmasters to build the story of what became the greatest miscarriage of justice in British history.

3. Legal backup is useful but not always essential.

Glick told the BSME that his magazine doesn’t employ its own counsel but tends to rely on their own legal knowledge as journalists.

4. Expect to be rubbished.

As the Post Office was in denial so was its PR operation discrediting Computer Weekly’s efforts; those national journalists that did follow it up were assured that this was just a mere trade press title that didn’t really know what it was doing and had got the wrong end of the stick.

5. Trust your knowledge.

Computer Weekly became convinced it was on the right lines by the Post Office’s defence: that if it were a software problem it would be appearing everywhere. Glick always knew that was “a fundamental misunderstanding” of how software goes wrong, he said, and bugs like that would be “fixed in a day”. Those that persist only occur under a specific set of hard to replicate circumstances.

6. The human story is what makes it fly.

The rest of the media was put off the story because it appeared to be about computers and therefore thought too tricky for the public to understand. I was an IT story for sure, but it was a human story and that’s what Natasha Bondy spotted in the Sunday Times and followed up for TV. And it was a human side everyone could identify with.

7. Sometimes, it takes a television dramatisation to bring change.

It’s a shame that politicians didn’t get it, national press and broadcasters mostly ignored it. But as Ian Hislop said, that’s what good TV should do.

8. Keep going, don’t give up.

“How many times over the ten years did we ask ourselves, ‘why is this not on the front page of a national newspaper or leading the News at Ten’,” said Glick. But Computer Weekly kept going also because it was engaging its specialist audience; the stories were well read even before the story blew up nationally.

9. It’s all worth it.

At the PPA session, the final word came from an anonymous member of the audience to the panel: “On behalf of my mum who didn’t see justice, I’d just like to say thank you.” Jo Hamilton, the sub-postmistress who saw her debt double in front of her on her terminal, thanked the journalists too.

10. Don’t expect to get the credit.

The BSME and the PPA pitched their sessions as those trade journalists behind the scenes that worked away tirelessly to expose the truth and were largely ignored. It’s great to see them get some credit. But it’s unusual. Trade journalists and the editors that commission them and give them space are working on stories all the time and when these scoops get picked up by the national media, they rarely get the credit they deserve. That’s not why they do it, of course, but it would make a difference. There are plenty of stories out there, plenty of investigations to be done. Investigative journalism is resource intensive and has to be argued in front of managers who hold the purse strings. But it’s even harder to justify all that effort and expense if it’s felt the title may not even get the proper recognition for its work. It’s time to start giving credit where it’s due – and it shouldn’t take a television drama and fifteen years.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.