Wednesday 28 October 2020

The first Post Office Horizon investigation

This is the origins story of the first piece of journalism written about the Post Office Horizon scandal.

In 2008 Lee Castleton was working as an electrician on power stations. He was a former Postmaster at Bridlington, North Yorkshire. The Post Office had taken him to the High Court over a £24,000 discrepancy at his branch and bankrupted him.

Lee was dwelling on what happened. He had contacted Computer Weekly a number of times without much success, but decided it was worth having another go.

The magazine's executive editor at the time was Tony Collins. Tony was responsible for a Computer Weekly investigation which called into question the verdict of the inquiry into the Mull of Kintyre Chinook disaster. 29 people were killed. The inquiry blamed pilot error. 

Computer Weekly found evidence of a potential glitch in the helicopter’s engine control software which could cause the aircraft to increase thrust without warning. The magazine stated:

"Gross negligence can only be brought if there's no doubt whatsoever as to the cause of the crash. In this case, there are too many uncertainties and the evidence that we have highlighted proves that the evidence on which the verdict was based is inconclusive.

We are saying that the verdict of gross negligence is manifestly and demonstrably unsafe."

Tony was right. 

It was not his only success. In 2007 he won an award for demonstrating the NHS national IT system was a dangerous flop.

In September 2008, Tony saw Lee's letter and gave it to Rebecca Thomson, a 26-year old staff journalist on the Computer Weekly team. He asked her to look into the story.

A bit... hello? What?

I first contacted Rebecca seven years after she published her investigation. I felt it was important to find out a bit more about the journalist who had broken the Horizon story. Rebecca was no longer at Computer Weekly and had just taken a job in the corporate world, but she was fairly easy to find on twitter. I sent her a tweet asking if she would be willing to correspond. 

Rebecca did not reply publicly, but followed me, so we were able to message each other in private. We swapped email addresses and I told Rebecca I was keen to chat through her experience of being the first journalist to break the story. 

Rebecca kindly agreed to a telephone call and two weeks later we spoke. The conversation did not go the way I expected. 

Before I could ask any questions about Rebecca’s work on Computer Weekly, she told me she had received a call at work from a senior public affairs exec within her company. That person asked Rebecca if she had been contacted by a journalist with regard to her investigation into Horizon. Bemused, Rebecca confirmed she had. Rebecca’s colleague said he had received a phone call from someone claiming to be from the Post Office, during which he had been reminded that his company counted the Post Office among its clients. It was suggested that Rebecca might like to tread very carefully before upsetting her company’s clients.

An apologetic Rebecca, new in her job, said to me that on the basis of her conversation at work, she didn’t feel able to talk to me about breaking the Horizon story or her time at Computer Weekly. Our conversation ended shortly thereafter.

I was disturbed by this. The tweet I had initially sent Rebecca was innocuous enough, and that was the only communication between us in the public domain. 

I don’t mind the Post Office following me on twitter. I actually asked them to once so I could send a direct message to their Director of Communications. But surely my one public tweet wouldn’t provoke anyone in the Post Office to pick up the phone and speak to Rebecca’s employer. What kind of weirdo would do that?  

The full story

A year later, I tried again. By this time Rebecca had jacked in her job in the corporate world and was back in journalism. She was happy to chat about her experience of putting the Computer Weekly investigation together. Here is what happened:

“Tony passed on Lee’s contact details and I gave him a ring. Lee told me his story, which was heartbreaking. It was quite upsetting talking to him because he’s such a nice man and he’s obviously been broken by this… organisation. 

He had a young family and he just sounded so downtrodden by it all. When I listened to him, he didn’t sound like a crazy, and he had lots of detail - he had his computer log and dates and he just wanted someone to look into his data and see if they could see anything that might have been causing him problems.

Lee also knew other people who had been in a similar situation. He gave me names and contact details, so I started calling around.”

In her piece, Rebecca interviewed seven former Subpostmasters - Lee Castleton, Jo Hamilton, Noel Thomas, Amar Bajaj, Alan Bates, Alan Brown and Julie Ford. 

“Alan Bates became my main source of contact after a while. Because Lee had so much on his plate I started dealing with Alan, who was very helpful.”

Given this story was not in the public domain, the legal risks of printing unproven allegations must have been very high. I asked Rebecca what her biggest concern was: 

“Never mentioning Fujitsu. Because they were the ones who might actually sue. Tony said that because the Post Office was a publicly-owned company it was very unlikely to sue us. That’s what made the story possible to run at all. If it was a private company we were investigating, we couldn’t publish because we couldn’t prove anything. All we had was the testimony of the Postmasters and a handful of experts saying 'Yes this looks suspicious but we have no way of knowing what the actual problems are.'”

In the finished piece all the Subpostmasters blame Horizon and the Post Office’s heavy-handed approach towards them for their varying woes, which include jail, bankruptcy and the loss of significant sums of money. All of them say their union, the National Federation of Subpostmasters, gave them no help whatsoever⁠.

The Post Office’s position is worth recording. Rebecca wrote:

“The Post Office denies it received any complaints from postmasters, and also denies that any IT-related fault could have caused the systems to show incorrect sums of money owed by some postmasters.”

Both parts of that denial are untrue. I have letters from Alan Bates, written to the Post Office, directly complaining about weaknesses in the Horizon system as early as 2000 and Alan Brown’s story (Case Study 6 in Rebecca’s piece) was a real systemic computer fault (it became known as the Callander Square incident) which could and did cause Subpostmasters to be out of pocket⁠.

It was Rebecca’s first investigation as a journalist:

“I got very emotionally involved with it. I just felt sorry for them basically. It’s quite an affecting story. And I think they were used to people like me asking questions about proof, because they’d been desperate to find proof for themselves. Any documentation they had they were very keen to send to me. I spoke to far more Subpostmasters than the case studies we went with in the end. Some were quite clueless, but some were really switched on.

The thing that gets me is that the Post Office should have been looking out for them, really. I know they weren’t actual employees of the Post Office but you kind of assume that a government-run organisation, which is there to provide to you with a living…” 

… she tailed off… 

“It’s just shocking that it could turn around and become so aggressive and could ruin their lives… and how people could end up in these desperate situations by doing comparatively so little. Obviously false accounting is wrong, but they all turned around and said they knew it was wrong, but they didn’t know what else to do.

I guess it was that combination of that desperation and being put in that position by a company that should have been trusted and that you automatically would trust because of what it is. It’s like the NHS turning on people. Institutionally… it’s so… weird in a way.” 

I asked Rebecca what it was like when, after six months of solid work, she got to press the button and push the story into the public domain.

“It was obviously exciting. We’d spent a lot of time getting this right, and so to finally get it out there was great, but we had really been working up to getting this onto the Today programme or having one of the Sunday papers pick up on it. A lot of Computer Weekly investigations had been picked up in the past and we genuinely thought it was a great story. But we put it out there and nothing happened, which was a bit disappointing…” 

Rebecca’s investigation is still up on the Computer Weekly website⁠. 

Although she was disappointed by the initial reaction, Rebecca’s piece had a far-reaching impact. Not least on James (now Lord) Arbuthnot, who read it and immediately set aside his scepticism about his constituent Jo Hamilton, who had been prosecuted by the Post Office for false accounting:

“It galvanised me. During the Chinook enquiry, Computer Weekly had been absolutely fantastic, and the fact that they were on Horizon’s case gave it, in my mind, credibility. I began to think that this was something that I couldn’t let go.”

Rebecca's piece also inspired the first TV investigation, by Taro Naw in the September of 2009, which uncovered yet more Subpostmasters having problems with Horizon.

Of the Postmasters interviewed in the Computer Weekly investigation, I’ve never had a chance to meet Amar, Julie or Alan Brown, but over the course of the last seven years I’ve come to know a lot about what happened to Jo Hamilton, Lee Castleton, Alan Bates and Noel Thomas. 

Alan went on to form the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and won an epic High Court battle against the Post Office, which only finished at the end of last year. Noel and Jo are due to have their convictions quashed at the Court of Appeal later this year, and Lee is still working as an electrician, still bankrupt and still fighting without much recognition or recompense for his efforts.

Rebecca remains exceptionally modest about her contribution, but I think she deserves significant credit for doing the job of getting the Post Office Horizon scandal into the public domain. She is, as you might expect, a bit of a hero of mine.

For more notes on the journalism which has reported on the efforts of the Subpostmasters to get justice, see "Credit where due".


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