THE effect has been extraordinary. Last week, ITV broadcast Mr Bates vs The Post Office. The four-part drama series, written by Gwyneth Hughes and starring a stalwart cast of British character actors, tells the story of some of the postmasters caught up in the Post Office Horizon scandal and their fight for justice.

Even before it was broadcast, the fact this show was being produced challenged widespread media disinterest in how the Post Office treated hundreds of its former ­postmasters and the impact their aggressive demands for money, their baseless allegations of dishonesty and their prosecutions visited on at least 700 people.

But Hughes’s human treatment of the postmasters’ stories seems finally to have struck a chord not only with the public – but with editors and programmers. Having been turned from fact into fiction, the Post Office scandal is finally news.

The tale has several features we know British audiences can relate to. This ­scandal was experienced on a human scale by ordinary people. Reputation, home, ­society, standing, liberty – these are basic needs any one of us can relate to. Losing them? There but for the grace of God go I, you might think.

In the hands of a talented ensemble cast, Mr Bates vs The Post Office becomes an underdog story with a well-realised villain, significant suffering along the way, real jeopardy about whether right would prevail – but with an ultimately redemptive story arc bending towards justice.

The effects of the drama don’t seem to end there. The fiction has given the ­reality – and unfinished business – of the scandal new public and political salience. ­Ministers are being asked about it. ­Politicians are ­being challenged for what they have done – and have not done – for their ­constituents who were affected.

Their historic roles are being scrutinised. An online petition to strip ex-Post Office boss Paula ­Vennells of her CBE for public service has been signed by almost 700,000 people. Off the back of the programme, the real Alan Bates has asked members of the public to write to their MP, demanding proper and timely ­compensation for those affected. I’d ­encourage you to do so too.

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Other institutions finally seem to be moving too. On Saturday morning, The Times front page ran with the story that the Metropolitan Police are now investigating “potential fraud offences arising out of these prosecutions” relating to ­“monies recovered from sub-postmasters as a ­result of prosecutions or civil actions”. It isn’t clear whether the TV programme and the associated consciousness-raising had an impact on stirring the Met out of its apathy – but it ­certainly looks that way.

Last week, popular morning breakfast programmes and news channels had been hosting real and fictional postmasters – including Alan Bates, Lee Castleton and Jo Hamilton – to talk about the show and their experiences of being wrongfully accused of having their hands in the till and lying about it.

When Lorraine Kelly and This ­Morning are talking about you, you know your story has achieved greater traction than Computer Weekly or Private Eye can deliver. There’s a snowball effect too, as sympathetic TV appearances send tabloid journalists scurrying to produce their own exclusives and profiles to rake in their share of the clickbait.

If the intervention of public interest ­television is what it takes to capture the public imagination, then it can only be a welcome development. But there’s a nagging anxiety at the back of my mind. Should it really take TV drama to precipitate all this interest, concern and action?

What does it say about our culture and society, that so many of us shrugged our shoulders at the reality of what these people experienced until fictionalised versions of their lives came along? What does it say about the priorities of our ­journalists and broadcasters that this story only began to capture the front pages when this scandal became an entertainment story? What does this tell us about what gatekeepers and showrunners think is newsworthy and important?

A more optimistic take on it would say that it just shows you the power of good ­storytelling. In the hands of ­talented ­writers and performers, a dense, ­technical, legalistic scandal becomes something ­relatable, something human in the way dull realities of injustice often fail to. And that must be right up to a point.

But “capturing the public ­imagination” doesn’t just happen. People decide to spotlight or ignore news stories. They ­decide they’re worth the effort of ­covering – or not. Public interest isn’t just lurking out there in the void to be discovered – it is created by what the media chooses to talk about. And the brutal fact is, for most of its history, most of the British media ­decided the Post Office scandal didn’t merit very much of their attention at all.

You also wonder how postmasters themselves feel, that the real stories of how their lives were pulled apart barely stirred the news bulletins, unless and ­until well-known actors pulled on their identities. Most are understandably pragmatic, content to see even belated recognition of what happened to them. Lee Castleton, played in the ITV drama by Will Mellor, told the Yorkshire Post that he was “just so grateful” for the series.

“For so many years people never ­listened, we were just another group of people with an axe to grind. Finally, ­people are listening to the sheer trauma that happened in people’s lives,” he said.

Reflecting on the impact of last week’s drama, I was also reminded that celebrity, fiction and drama have a storied history of highlighting miscarriages of justice which might otherwise have dwindled away in the public consciousness, uncorrected and unaddressed.

The case of Oscar Slater – ­wrongfully convicted of the murder of ­Marion ­­Gilchrist in Glasgow in 1909 – was ­arguably only put right by the ­intervention of Arthur Conan Doyle. The ­inventor of Sherlock Holmes harnessed his ­literary skills to draft a gripping and ­accessible pamphlet, explaining why Slater’s ­conviction was inconsistent with the ­evidence and so unsafe.

Doyle also helped fund Slater’s subsequent appeal against conviction – money Slater did a runner with after he was released from prison, much to ConnDoyle’s chagrin.

Conan Doyle’s popular account of ­everything which went wrong in Slater’s case – from wildly speculative forensic claims to tainted eyewitness evidence – stuck to the facts.

Most of these had ­already been marshalled by Scots ­lawyer William Roughead two years earlier, who followed the prosecution closely. But the magic pixie dust of Doyle’s ­celebrity ­introduced the case to whole new ­audiences, lending momentum to the legal action which would ­ultimately see Slater’s conviction quashed as a ­miscarriage of justice.

Documents published just before Christmas moved along the – if anything, even more neglected – Scottish angle on this story, just a nudge. The Horizon Compensation Advisory Board was set up by the UK Government to monitor the sluggardly progress for the resolution of compensation claims by people affected by the Post Office scandal.

In December 2023, the Board published responses from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. These documents contain some significant ­observations which have reached the ­public domain for the first time. These have been mostly overlooked by the ­Scottish media.

First, Scottish prosecutors confirm in this letter that the Post Office “did not make COPFS aware of the Horizon issues to the extent that they are now known to have existed”.

This only raises further questions. To what extent did the Post ­Office make the Crown Office aware of ­failures in its IT system? We know a Scottish case in ­Govan was dropped by an individual Procurator Fiscal in 2012 because of problems with Horizon. How widespread was this knowledge?

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And if Scottish prosecutors believe they were actively deceived by Post ­Office ­lawyers in failing to disclose known faults with the Fujitsu system, what are they ­going to do about it?

But these letters also give new ­insight into the scale of the impact of the Post ­Office’s lies and distortions about ­Horizon here. The Crown now ­estimate that the number of Horizon cases in ­Scotland could amount to up to 100 cases. Just a handful have been referred to ­Scotland’s appeal courts so far. The Crown ­anticipate that the speed of ­reviewing these cases can increase ­“exponentially”. It’ll need to. Progress so far has been glacial.

As COPFS candidly admit in this ­correspondence: “Unlike in England and Wales or Northern Ireland, the Scottish Criminal justice system is very much ­closer to the start of its journey in ­addressing potential miscarriages of ­justice arising out of unreliable evidence obtained from the Horizon system.”

Looking at the state of public debate in Scotland on the impact of the Post Office scandal, despite the ITV drama, you still wouldn’t know it.