WHEN you write an obscure blog as an occasional self-indulgent hobby, the world is not waiting for your take on the big issues. That much I have learned. So in reactivating this site I resolved to remember that and stick to rambling on about my own inconsequential nonsense.
So on the Post Office miscarriages of justice scandal, I was simply going to nod along with Jonathan Calder's judgement that 'Ed Davey should go easy on calling for people to resign' and ponder quietly why it is that after reading intermittently about this case over several years, muttering that it did seem like a miscarriage of justice, being pleased to learn of the TV series and watching it in a single evening, I felt uncomfortable about its aftermath.
A degree of enlightenment comes from reading David Aaronovitch's Substack post The fatal flaw in Mr Bates vs The Post Office', which has flown into my inbox as I am a non-paying subscriber to his newsletter. I haven't always been an Aaronovitch fan, and still often disagree with him, but I came to a grudging admiration through reading his (sadly now discontinued) Times column, in particular because he is willing to make difficult arguments rather than simply write to please his readers. This is a case in point.
The fatal flaw he identifies with Mr Bates vs The Post Office is not simply that it is full of familiar good-guy underdog and heartless-bureaucrat-villain tropes, but that while it is clear why the former do what they do it displays no interest in and doesn't attempt to understand the latter: the Post Office CEO Paula Vennells or her sidekick or their Fujitsu contractors. 'But what about the baddies?' he asks, arguing that their motivation is what we really need to know.
Weirdly I could have a stab at that one, paradoxically because my experience of holding public office, even if only at the lowly level of district councillor, gave me enough understanding of the perils and pitfalls of power that I resolved not to attempt to climb any higher up the ladder. Even dealing with such matters as controversial planning applications, rows about allotments, taxi regulation, market relocations and hospital redevelopments was daunting enough to make me think this may have parallels on a grander stage. At the very least when I read or watch abuse-of-power stories, I pause and wonder whether I would have done any better before getting on my high horse. So, based on my maybe slightly relevant experience, here are my best guesses as to how they may have gone wrong without having malign motives.
When I was a relatively new councillor a more experienced opponent advised me: 'The secret in this game is knowing when you're being bullshitted by so-called experts'. But that's not as easy as it sounds. Experts can be quite good at bullshitting. At the very least they have more specialist knowledge than we generalists/lay people/elected representatives do. You end up having to take some things on trust, unless you happen to have knowledge that contradicts what you are being told or have access to other experts with other opinions.
There can be moments when it feels you have troubles and stresses enough and privately hope to be reassured not burdened with yet another woe. And then there's the risk of appearing too stupid to understand. On the latter point, I'm sure that among the reasons for my dear wife's longevity as Elected Mayor of Watford was a willingness to keep asking questions until she got an answer she understood and a sixth sense for when someone's story wasn't stacking up, the latter skill perhaps deriving from her previous career as a schoolteacher.
Another, perhaps opposite, challenge was that over my 30 years in the foothills of public office, a regular flow of strange stories came to my ears, of varying levels of plausibility. Some of them I knew to be untrue because they were about me (land I supposedly owned, but in fact didn't, where planning permission had just been granted.) Indeed to read comments on newspaper websites one might imagine that every controversial planning application was only granted permission due to 'brown envelopes'. We could have paralysed the entire council if we had investigated every such spurious allegation or rumour.
Sometimes serious, specific and public accusations were made that went beyond hearsay yet fell apart almost as soon as an investigation got underway. Yet just occasionally an issue was raised that initially sounded improbable, but on closer inspection proved absolutely accurate – there was something wrong that needed putting right. Knowing which was which was never straightforward - more art than science. And while one may be aware of cases that proved either spurious or true, one never knows if there were other things one should have followed up but didn't because they seemed too implausible.
All of which is to say I can at least imagine how the Post Office ended up in denial and why ministers believed their assurances. I can even read Mr Bates and the Post Office against the grain to see why they might have done so. Before the emergence of a whistleblower what specific evidence did they have to show Fujitsu could change individual postmasters' records? Even if they knew it was possible why would they think Fujitsu staff were deliberately falsifying records to postmasters' detriment? There seemed no evidence of any gain to the company or of fraud by individual employees. While the line that no one else was having problems was clearly false, might fraud by postmasters not have appeared at first sight the most plausible explanation - fraud does happen? If Horizon had gone haywire why was it still only a small proportion that was affected (at least that was my impression from the series) and why was what was being thrown up was all in one direction - unexplained losses not unexplained surpluses? Maybe these points have been answered, but such initial reactions might not have been unreasonable.
None of which is to let Paula Vennells, other Post Office officials or government ministers, even Lib Dem ones, off the hook. The job of public officials to judge when we are being hoodwinked or bullshitted by experts and which of the many unlikely stories one may hear has the ring of truth and needs further investigation. Praise is due to those who have exposed miscarriages of justice, whether James Arbuthnott, or back in the day Chris Mullin, and serially Private Eye. Likewise, brickbats, and even withdrawn honours, are the price of misjudgement. But amid the justified condemnation perhaps there is room for a little understanding of why those with responsibility can get such things badly wrong.