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What We Can Learn from Britain’s Greatest Legal Scandal

It’s been called the biggest miscarriage of justice in British history. Certainly it’s the largest in scope. It’s a story of power, hypocrisy, injustice, technology, and hundreds of “little people” ground in the gears of a callous institution.

In brief, more than 700 subpostmasters were unjustly prosecuted for false accounting and theft. Subpostmasters are self-employed business operators with contracts to run branches of the Post Office. Such stores (and postmasters) are commonly at the heart of local communities. But these men and women were ruthlessly prosecuted by the Post Office—a limited company owned entirely by the government.

Some went to prison; many were financially ruined. Marriages broke down, health suffered, four victims took their own lives—yet none of it was their fault. It was the fault of an accounting program called Horizon, created by Fujitsu and rolled out by the Post Office. After multiple investigations, the Post Office has grudgingly admitted the software makes 12,000 errors a day. But at the time, they insisted there were no systemic issues—it must be the fault of hundreds of subpostmasters, all with their hands in the tills. And so they prosecuted their employees at a rate of one per week, year after year.

Why are people talking about it again? Because the ITV drama Mr. Bates vs the Post Office has shone light on the issue, causing a million-strong petition to be written, former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells to return her CBE, and enormous pressure on the government to overturn hundreds of convictions and pay compensation to thousands of victims. With the scandal seen in this frame, a nation’s conscience has been pricked.

Churches can see themselves reflected in the Post Office—a trusted institution that has, at times, harmed many. Church leaders can see themselves, at times, reflected in the institutional blindness and machinations of an organization intent on protecting itself at all costs. Victims can see themselves reflected in the subpostmasters with their long and winding road to restitution. And the world can see the issues framed best when they’re framed biblically. The ultimate David versus Goliath story—the gospel of Jesus Christ—makes sense of such scandals and gives us hope for a future of justice, mercy, and peace.

Whether leaders or victims, Christians or non-Christians, here are eight lessons we can learn.

1. The problem isn’t errors. The problem is insisting there are no errors.

Every IT system has glitches. The problem is claiming infallibility. But the Post Office was so committed to self-justification that it prosecuted its innocent people rather than question its faulty machines. In 2014, the Post Office clapped back at criticisms: “There is absolutely no evidence of any systemic issues with the computer system, which is used by over 78,000 people across our 11,500 branches and which successfully processes over six million transactions every day.” But the system made roughly 12,000 errors a year. It isn’t a good idea to declare infallible something that missteps about every 45 minutes. Yet they doubled down, insisting they were right.

This is at the heart of the human condition, according to the Bible. It’s not just that we’re wrong; the deeper problem is we pretend to be right. Our problem isn’t just our badness; it’s our pretended goodness. The fig leaves we sew together—or to use a New Testament image, the whitewash we apply to deadly sin—cause even more of a problem.

It’s not just that we’re wrong; the deeper problem is we pretend to be right. Our problem isn’t just our badness; it’s our pretended goodness.

2. Technology can lift people up, but it also leaves people behind.

It’s possible to tell a positive tech story about the Post Office. This institution has existed since 1660. Before 1999, you had to do all your accounts with paper and pen. Step forward Fujitsu and its Horizon system, representing technology and efficiency—the future! But many were left behind. And it’s not just users of Horizon.

None of us knows much about the technology that’s become essential to our lives. Our world is irreversibly complex—with systems relying on other systems and few people competent to deal with even one of them, let alone the interlocking networks we depend on each day. Those developing AI are saying even they don’t know the ins and outs of where the technology is going.

3. Technology oppresses as well as liberates.

Eighty years ago, C. S. Lewis considered the promises and perils of technology in The Abolition of Man: “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”

Horizon promised to be a tool of liberation—freeing people from drudgery and inefficiency. In practice, it became a tool of oppression, freezing out the little people and empowering the organizational machine.

4. Victims and whistleblowers will have complex stories.

Those blowing the whistle on the Post Office tended to be under the cloud of false allegations. Some had done jail time. A great number felt enormous embarrassment at having gotten themselves into this situation. They’d hidden their debts, hidden that they’d had to remortgage their homes. They often felt stupid and ashamed. No wonder it’s taking time for more and more to tell their stories.

Coming forward takes time and courage, and it often requires others to go first. Put yourself in the shoes of the people first hearing these complex stories. If you’re listening to a whistleblower, you’ll have to consider, Can I look past outward appearances to seek the truth? Can I persist in complex situations to seek clarity?

The lessons here for church abuse scandals should be obvious. Victims and whistleblowers will have complex stories, and they’ll be processing feelings of profound shame. It’ll be messy, not straightforward. And that’s just the individuals. Complexities multiply among survivor communities.

5. Survivor communities are difficult to manage.

In 2009, Alan Bates (“Mr. Bates” of the TV drama) formed the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. As it grew in size over the next decade, the group had to navigate many complexities. Different people had played different roles in the scandal—some having (knowingly or not) harmed other members.

For instance, some had been part of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, which the Post Office had used to manage and sometimes silence whistleblowers. The Alliance had to accommodate different kinds of victims with different experiences of victimhood, different experiences of one another, and different views on how best to seek redress.

As so many churches face abuse scandals, we should be aware that survivor communities aren’t monolithic. Immense wisdom and grace are needed.

6. Survivor communities can be life-giving refuges.

When each subpostmaster brought a complaint to the Post Office, he or she was told the system was flawless. The complainant also heard that he or she was the only one. It seems likely the Post Office’s helplines were specifically briefed to tell each complainant that same message—as cruel as it was false. But when subpostmasters came together, the sense of solidarity was a lifeline. The first episode of Mr. Bates ends with Bates convening their first meeting:

They told us over and over: “You’re the only one.” And that was wrong. That was a lie. . . . From this moment forward: none of us will be the only one ever again.

It’s glorious. You want “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to blast out at this point. Just five biblical chapters after the Goliath story, David is up against an imposing organization with all the levers of power at their disposal. “Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to [David]. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men” (1 Sam. 22:2).

The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance became a community of the afflicted. It’s the redemption that comes on the far side of oppression and atomization. Here is community. Here is love. And on a far greater scale, here is church at its best—at least what we aim to be as we gather around our true David, Jesus Christ.

7. Drama is powerful.

In the weeks since Mr. Bates aired, there’s been extraordinary public outrage, complete with petitions, reversals, and government commitments. These didn’t follow simply from the publishing of court reports, nor simply from journalism, but from millions of people inhabiting the victims’ stories.

I was vaguely aware of the story years ago and commented on it in 2022, but I didn’t feel the story until I saw Monica Dolan (playing Jo Hamilton) on the phone to the Horizon helpline. Seeing her click a button and watch her debt double before her eyes was one of the most horrifying experiences I’ve had while watching a drama. I’ve seen The Exorcist; I’ve seen Sawthis was horror. Because we’ve been there: infuriating IT, a faceless corporation, a baffling system, and you get ground in the gears. But the drama put us into Hamilton’s shoes in a way that little else can.

As the show’s star, Toby Jones, has observed, “In most of the political upheavals in history, not least ancient Greece and revolutionary Russia, drama has been at the centre of political change. People have used it to humanise, dramatise, and bring forth change.”

What changes us isn’t simply information. We’re story-driven creatures who inhabit one little drama most of the time—the one in which we’re the hero and others are bit players. We need to be lifted out of ourselves—our egos, our biases—and made to inhabit a new imaginative world.

And which story uniquely resonates?

8. The Christian story is supreme.

In dramatizing the Post Office scandal, many choices had to be made. Multiple people are consolidated into a single character; many more figures and storylines are simply left out. This is necessary if you’re going to tell a compelling narrative. A central hero must be chosen. In this instance, it’s the unflappable, indefatigable Mr. Bates. It’s the story of one man versus a system arrayed against him, but his insistence on the truth will set the many free.

We’re story-driven creatures who inhabit one little drama most of the time—the one in which we’re the hero and others are bit players. We need to be lifted out of ourselves.

This classic David versus Goliath tale depicts a giant running rampant and crushing the little people. The evil empire is even headed up by a priest—Vennells, then-CEO. She’s a self-supported priest in the Church of England, the perfect archetype for a villain in such stories.

Of course, Jesus Christ—son of David and true fulfillment of David’s story—was crushed by the priests of his day, but it became the means of evil being vanquished and captives going free. As author and tech entrepreneur Antonio García Martínez has said, “The Western mind is like a tuning fork calibrated to one frequency: the Christ story. Hit it with the right Christ figure, and it’ll just hum deafeningly in resonance.”

The Christian story is supreme. That doesn’t mean Christians are supreme. Perhaps the preeminent villain of the TV drama—the CEO—is a Christian. And it doesn’t mean Christians always get it right. But what’s supreme is the story in which Jesus has felled the terrifying Giant. Through suffering, oppression, misunderstanding, and appalling miscarriages of justice, the Truth looked dead and buried. But the Truth was vindicated.

The Western mind is like a tuning fork calibrated to one frequency: the Christ story.

He rose on the third day to bring redemption—not to those who pretend to be righteous but to those who know they’re sinners. Not to those who cling to their fig leaves but to those who drop the act in the presence of love. And in his community of the broken, there’s consolation, freedom, and hope.

We’re ordinarily the little people at the mercy of the Giant. Often we’re the perpetrators, caught up in self-justification and institutional obstinacy. But there’s a Giant-Killer who will have the last word.

The Post Office scandal resonates with us for profoundly Christian reasons. On some level, we know—or should know—that the evil systems, powers, and faceless machines of this world will be brought to nothing. In the end, the meek shall inherit the earth.


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