Lots more to do
Thanks to everyone who watched last night’s Panorama. Hopefully it will have created greater public awareness of the story.
If you haven’t seen it, please do give it a go on iPlayer. I am deeply touched by all the kind comments and I am, once more, very grateful to everyone who contributed.
The story moves into another phase now.
I still want to know who decided what at which level as this scandal progressed. Not just within the Post Office but between the Post Office and the government.
Someone is responsible for deciding to turn the complaint and mediation scheme into a legalistic, attritional nightmare. This led to the court case which eventually cost the Post Office more than £100m.
A possible clue
In August 2013, Susan Crichton, the Post Office’s General Counsel (their top in-house lawyer) left the organisation abruptly, shortly after the mediation scheme was set up. A new General Counsel, Chris Aujard, was brought in as an interim. He stayed until the end of March 2015.
During this period the Post Office’s independent investigators Second Sight were allegedly obstructed, convicted Subpostmasters were told their cases would not be mediated and Second Sight’s conclusions were rubbished by the Post Office, who refused to release their reports.
In Autumn 2015 Mr Aujard popped up in General Counsel magazine, full of advice on how to handle a crisis. The article begins:
“Any organisation should have a crisis response process, and the general counsel can (and is increasingly expected to) play a key role in crafting this.”
Which is just as well, as according to Aujard, the execs are usually hopeless:
“They tend to go down the route of denial: “This can’t be happening, you’ve got it wrong, everyone’s got it wrong”. They might go through the process of grudging acceptance: “Well, ok, maybe there is something in it.” And quickly there is the deflating: “Oh god, we’re done for.”
I wonder which execs he could be talking about?
Thankfully an experienced general counsel is there to take control: “You can’t send stuff out saying, “it’s all our fault, terribly sorry, we’ll pay you any compensation you ask for!”’
Of course. Aujard also notes how important it is to play the media:
“I like working with the PR guys, because they come up with a different view, and the evidence is on their side. You can prevent your share price sliding by being seen to make a quick response. Where the creative tension comes in is by responding quickly, but not responding in a way which is going to foreclose any other options in the future. Sounding brilliant, but promising nothing.”
Chris Aujard’s advice to the Post Office may have had a role in suppressing one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in the UK this century. Although the article doesn’t mention the Post Office once, it seems to explain the way the Post Office’s Director of Communications, Mark Davies tried to smother the story whilst the PO’s executives tried (and failed) to get to grips with the scale of the problem they were sitting on.
As we now know, rather than come clean and open up, the Post Office board chose a crisis management strategy, possibly devised by the brilliant Mr Aujard, which has cost the organisation its reputation, well north of a hundred million quid, and prolonged the agony of hundreds of people who may well have been erroneously prosecuted.
On top of that, the Post Office is also currently spending goodness knowns how much money running a Historical Shortfall Scheme and investigating 900 prosecutions which may have used Horizon evidence. One person working at a senior level within the Post Office told me:
“The Board is extremely worried that these ‘new’ cases will bankrupt the Post Office.”
I wonder if that will skew their decision-making away from fairness yet again.
The chickens are coming home to roost, and yet the government seems very shy of poking round the hen house.
Kate Osborne, the MP who asked the Prime Minister if he supports setting up an independent inquiry into what the Post Office has been up to (he does), received a letter yesterday from the Postal Services minister Paul Scully telling her the government intends to conduct an independent “review” wherein:
“lessons from this case are learned and addressed.”
The review’s scope etc will be announced “in due course” and Mr Scully says: “We will also work to ensure that any review does not undermine the work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission or the separate Director of Public Prosecution’s consideration.”
A desperate lack of enthusiasm to do anything drips off the page, and the galling sight of a political football being lined up for a gentle lob into the long grass is hard to miss.
A not-very-thorough review could be a mistake. The Post Office scandal is very much the government’s problem now. Part of the reason we are where we are is because for years, ministers and civil servants didn’t care what the Post Office was up to, providing it was taking steps to become less dependent on government subsidy.
How’s that “arms-length” strategy looking now? A near-bankrupt organisation with its reputation in shreds is a going to be a tough one to sell off. And there is a moral responsibility here, too. A government’s first priority is to protect its citizens. Over the last 10 years ministers and civil servants have done little or nothing as hundreds of Subpostmasters have had their lives turned over or ruined by a government-owned entity. If I were a minister those people would be my first priority, not the desire to spare a few political blushes.
Thank you to everyone who has got in touch over the last few days. I am going to try to scale back the number of secret emails to a one or two a week now that the Panorama and Radio 4 series is over, but I will be going through every scrap of correspondence and continuing to post pieces on the Post Office Trial website.
If you haven’t yet had a look at the Justice For Subpostmasters’ Alliance attempt to kickstart an investigation by the parliamentary ombudsman, check out their crowdjustice site here. They’re a third of the way onto their target of £98,000 with 22 days to go.
If they don’t make it, you don’t lose any money, if they do reach their target, it could get very interesting.
Have a great day.
PS I am indebted to Bob Nicholson, Whistledown producer, for pointing me in the direction of that GC magazine article featuring Chris Aujard. I missed it first time round!