Abuse of Power
January 4 2024
In episode 1 of Mr Bates vs The Post Office, there is a scene in which Alan Bates’ wife tells him she has a job.
“Teaching?” he replies.
“No. Cleaning houses.”
They need the money to make ends meet. They have lost their savings and business.
He gives her a look – of love, gratitude & a hint of humiliation at what they’ve been reduced to and then – quietly but with determination – he says:
“I’ll get those bastards.”
It is a wonderful piece of writing and sublime, subtle acting, especially by Toby Jones. It captures both the humiliation inflicted on innocent people by the powerful and the former’s determination not to be ground down. It is about the subpostmasters. But like all good drama, including that based on real life, it shows something universal.
Those sentiments have been echoed before. They will, I am sorry to say, be repeated in the future. Because abuse of power is hard to eradicate. The powerful have no interest in doing so; the powerless find it hard to do so.
This abuse of power by the state or its organs has happened so many times before. This story about the Post Office is not an appalling one-off. It is only the latest of a series of scandals going back at least 60 years.
In so many ways, the misbehaviours exhibited by the Post Office are similar to those exhibited by the Coal Board in the Aberfan tragedy, by the police in Hillsborough, by the government in the blood contamination scandal and Windrush, by the NHS in numerous medical scandals, and in many others.
The substance may be different but the misbehaviours by the powerful are so very similar:
– the refusal to listen to concerns
– the lies and cover ups
– the stingy callous approach to apologies and compensation
– the refusal to accept responsibility
– the avoidance of accountability.
There are two behaviours above all which are repeated. The first is the arrogance of indispensability.
It is this which leads to the abuse of power which lies at the heart of the actions taken. The Post Office’s conduct over nearly two decades might best be described as a rampage of extortion with menaces, based on lies.
It is enabled by those who allow such organisations to behave as if they are unchallengeable. As if they are “Too Big To Fail” or “Too Important To Fail“.
It is abetted by such organisations being put by voters on a pedestal of some kind or trusted too blindly: the Post Office as a twinkly, trusted “Postman Pat-At-The-Heart-of-The-Community” who could not possibly do any wrong. Or the NHS. Or the police – who have often confused the vital importance of policing as a function with the importance themselves as an institution so making it much harder to challenge bad policing.
In this, these organisations have echoed the stance taken by much of the City in its pre-financial crash glory days, when it gave the impression that it was so lucrative and therefore indispensable that it could do whatever it wanted with little real regard for the rules. It was an attitude enabled by politicians so delighted at the large tax revenues that they ignored the dangers of the overmighty barons of that time.
And the second?
It is an indifference to ordinary people, to the human consequences of misbehaviour, to the impact on others.
This quote from the above article explains so much about the Post Office’s and government’s obduracy about putting this right.
“There is the indifference which can be one of the causes of a problem. But what is often worse is the indifference shown to victims after problems have arisen. It is hard to understand the callousness of some decisions. Perhaps it is made easier by forgetting or ignoring those who are affected.
It feels like indifference to those on the receiving end. But perhaps its impulse is less the effect on the victims but more a desire to save face by those responsible……
It harms an institution’s self-image and, often, of senior people within it. “We got it wrong.” is hard to say. If “we get it wrong” what sort of a “we” are we, really?”Avoiding the shame of having to admit that your actions or inactions have been responsible for the suffering of others is what drives this defensiveness and indifference.”
- You see this in the evidence given by Post Office staff in the Williams Inquiry.
- You see it in the evidence given by the Post Office’s internal and external lawyers.
- You see it in the response at Board level, which also manages to suggest that criticisms of its staff are somehow unacceptable and unfair and unkind, as if they were the true victims. The combination of arrogance and narcissism must be hard to bear for those who really have suffered.
- You see it in the response by the government. It gives the impression of being a random passer-by at the scene of accident caused by complete strangers ineffectually using a hankie to mop up blood and expecting huge thanks. In reality, it is the owner and funder of the Post Office and without its say-so and money the Post Office would cease to exist overnight.
What you also see in those other cases is how those responsible for harm done to others got away with it, were not made accountable, suffered no adverse consequences.
We are seeing that in this case too. Look at all the senior people in the period between 2000 – 2012 (when Paula Vennells was appointed CEO) when prosecutions were happening despite the knowledge that senior people in the Post Office, Fujitsu and government knew about Horizon’s difficulties and deficiencies. Look at how they have flourished in well paid jobs with their time in charge of an organisation at the heart of the worst miscarriage of justice in English history airbrushed away or ignored.
It feels as if this is more of the same: the powerful abusing the powerless. Because they can. Because they know they are untouchable. Because even if disciplinary or civil or criminal proceedings are brought, those Post Office prosecutors, investigators and lawyers, external lawyers and Fujitsu employees and others will benefit from the protections and rights and compliance with the rules and a fair trial which the Post Office denied the subpostmasters. We know why they should get those protections. But to those who have suffered as a result of their actions, it must feel like yet another unfairness to be added to those they’ve already endured, another example of how the powerful benefit at the expense of the powerless.
Will those who did wrong be held to account this time?
What about those others who set up the structures or took decisions or made laws which enabled this scandal to happen: the Ministers, the civil servants, the Law Commission, the MPs?
What sort of accountability should they face?