DRY, witty, understated – when Alan Bates sat down at the Post Office Inquiry on Tuesday morning, it was always likely to be a blockbuster session.

Bates is the founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, architect of the big civil case which exposed the Post Office’s lies in 2019 – and the leading character in the ITV drama which led Sir Wyn Williams’s inquiry room to be packed with press, as he began taking evidence on phase five and six of the Post Office Horizon Inquiry.

The Post Office scandal arguably has three key phases. The first was the rollout of the Horizon accounting system between 1999 and 2015, the glitches and bugs which rapidly emerged, and the Post Office’s ­aggressive extraction of cash from its subpostmasters on the false basis that their contract of services made them liable for any and all shortfalls tallied by Horizon.

Hundreds were prosecuted, induced to plead guilty, some jailed, many ­impoverished – with the Post Office all the while insisting that Horizon worked well, that postmasters were isolated in ­experiencing problems, and there was no way for individual branch accounts and transactions to be altered by Fujitsu ­engineers. It now transpires this was all lies.

Evidence unearthed

The next phase of the scandal is the ­denial and the cover-up. This isn’t ancient history. Second Sight – forensic accountants brought in to test Horizon’s ­credibility – were sacked by the Post Office board ­after they began unearthing evidence that the ­accounting system didn’t work and that the evidence relied on in criminal prosecutions didn’t justify the theft charges the Post ­Office had brought.

They have secret recordings – some of which are already leaking into the public domain – of these discussions with senior Post Office figures, including Paula Vennells who is scheduled to face three days of questions about her role in this scandal.

Between 2015 and 2019, Post Office ­executives and lawyers fought long and dirty in the High Court, arguing – to use the ugly phrase of one former CEO – that Horizon was “robust” and that any ­shortfalls must be down to “subbies with their hand in the till” who “choose to blame the technology when they are found to be short of cash”.

The National: A recent ITV drama told the story of the Post Office scandal

Tactics included attacking the integrity of the trial judge after he ruled against them, lying to MPs, and resisting disclosure of material which would demonstrate that Horizon not only had flaws, but that the Post Office knew about them all along.

The last phase of the scandal we’re still living through right now. Justice ­delayed is justice denied, and hundreds of postmasters are still waiting for the full restitution and compensation they’re owed. Hundreds are still waiting for their unsafe convictions to be set aside.

Dramatic impact

One question I’ve been exploring with my law students this term is why the ITV drama had such an impact. Thousands of people watched the inquiry livestream this week. Newspapers and broadcasters are liveblogging hearings that would be lucky to get a mention on news bulletins as recently as 2023.

It seems perverse that it took turning the Horizon scandal into drama to make it a major news story – but watching the ­performance of the real-life Bates, ­realised on screen by Toby Jones, his character is surely a big part of what the British public found so compelling about the story.

At its core, this is an underdog story pitting ordinary blameless people against a faceless corporation and its apparatchiks who – through a combination of malice, negligence and denial – destroyed hundreds of people’s lives.

With its ensemble cast of ­British ­character actors, Mr Bates Vs The Post Office reminded me of films like Pride and even Calendar Girls – when ­injustice comes to small-town Britain, the ­humanity and the fundamental decency of ­village life are thoughtlessly kicked over by officious bureaucrats, stoutly resisted by an alliance of unlikely rebels.


Monica Dolan’s moving performance as Jo Hamilton – whose Hampshire ­village rallied around her after she was ­accused of stealing £36,000 – lent the ­drama much of its emotional heft, ­capturing the ­horror and fear so many ­postmasters ­experienced when they were subject to the Post Office’s audits and demands to make good shortfalls, knowing they hadn’t taken the money, but baffled by the IT, gaslit by the Post Office and Fujitsu, finding themselves in court, watching as their lives and assets were ruthlessly dismantled and confiscated by “Britain’s most trusted brand”.

Bates cut – and cuts – a different character on screen and in real life. “Stubborn” was the word he used to describe himself at the inquiry – but it’s an understated toughness. He’s vexed rather than furious, ­reasoned rather than tearful, careful with details, thoughtful, undeferential, and above all, brave.

Unlike many subpostmasters, he didn’t dip into his savings, remortgage his house, borrow money, or sign off false accounts to answer the Horizon system’s constant demand for more money. I say this as no criticism of those who did. They found themselves in an impossible position and did what they thought best to keep their lives afloat. But the ­contrast in Bates’s ­reaction to his employer’s threats and menaces underscores just how ­courageous he was.

Because Bates never accepted that he owed the Post Office any money. When Horizon began generating shortfalls in his Craig-y-Don Post Office in the early 2000s, he wrote to his managers, ­telling them about the problems he was ­experiencing with the system, making it clear he was rolling over the phantom losses, and wouldn’t pay over a penny ­until he was given full access to the ­numbers for his branch.


Figures show he and his staff made 507 calls to the helpline during his ­time working for the Post Office, of which 85 “related to Horizon and balancing problems.” In response, the Post Office wrote off some of these phantom debts – but Bates’s card had been marked as a troublemaker. “Unmanageable” was how they characterised him.

So the Post Office followed up with a stern series of instructions – stop rolling over the losses, Mr Bates, and cough up the cash for any shortfalls immediately.

But Bates wasn’t having this either, ­politely pointing out that his agreement with the Post Office obliged him only to make good any money which went ­missing because of his own “negligence, carelessness or error” – not to answer for any and all accounting mistakes generated by the Post Office’s own IT systems.

“You are, in effect, purporting to vary this contract” he pushed back. He also – prophetically – gave his Post Office ­masters the following example, underscoring the absurdity of their position. “To take an extreme,” he wrote in May 2003, “if the Horizon system said I owed £1 million, you would say I would have to make good the loss without delay and without question.”

This exchange is classic Bates – and ­undoubtedly left the Post Office drone brainlessly demanding compliance ­bealin’. But this was, in essence, the Post Office’s position. As a High Court judge later put it, they felt “entitled” to treat these men and women “in capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory owner”.

They ­decided to solve the problem of Alan Bates by giving him his jotters. The Post Office terminated his contract in 2003 – giving him three months’ notice to pack up his business and clear off.

As Bates says in his witness statement, they then spent the next 20 years ­“denying, lying, defending and ­attempting to discredit and silence me”. They failed. And now it is their turn – for all the ­deniers, the liars, the defenders to face their own questions about what they knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it.

But this accountability is hard-won. “I didn’t set out to spend 20 years doing this,” Bates said, but “you got to meet people and realised it wasn’t just yourself, and you saw the harm and injustice that had been descended upon them, it was something that you felt you had to deal with”.

The lesson? Never underestimate the determination of a quiet man.