More dispatches from the Post Office bunker: the PR guy goes Tonto

On 1 Dec 2014 I was in Cornwall, where Tim Robinson, Jane Goddard, Joe Cooper and I had been filming with former Subpostmaster Sue Knight. After 32 years service Sue had been sacked and prosecuted by the Post Office for false accounting. Although the prosecution had been dropped, Sue’s life was falling apart. She had lost her job and reputation and was in the process of losing her home. Her mental health was in tatters.

Our interview with Sue was due to go out in January as part of two films the Inside Out South team were making for the One Show. Whilst we were back at the hotel, recovering from a long day’s filming, Tim received a message from Huw Irranca-Davies, one of the MPs in James Arbuthnot’s parliamentary group. The MPs had decided to publicly withdraw their support from the Post Office’s Complaint and Mediation scheme.

This happened on 9 Dec, when James Arbuthnot was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today Programme alongside his constituent and former Subpostmaster Jo Hamilton. The Post Office’s Director of Communications Mark Davies was also interviewed. Davies suggested the convicted campaigning Subpostmasters had “lifestyle problems as a result of their having been working in Post Office branches*”.

That evening, Tim and I got the first One Show piece out, featuring Sue.

Over the next eight days we worked on the second. For the duration of this period we were in regular contact with the Post Office, requesting an interview with Paula Vennells so she could put her company’s perspective forward.

Our second One Show piece went out on 17 December, the same day as a parliamentary debate, in which the Post Office was described by MPs as “arrogant”, “high-handed” and “duplicitous” (more on that here on a website I really need to devote some time to. It’s quite old).

The BBC are playing games

Yesterday, during former Post Office Chair Alice Perkins’ second day of evidence to the Post Office Inquiry, we saw how this media activity was going down inside the Post Office bunker.

On Sunday 14 December, three days before our second piece, Mark Davies emailed Alice Perkins, Paula Vennells (CEO) and Belinda Crowe (Project Sparrow Programme Director) to tell them:

“The team and I have been working pretty much all weekend on the Parliamentary debate and (frankly) duelling with the BBC over their plans for a further round of broadcasts on Wednesday. A legal letter will go in the morning… Part of the challenge here is that the BBC are playing games: and it may well be that if we can’t provide a spokesperson they can’t broadcast it as it would lack balance.”

Reader, we weren’t playing games, we were doing our jobs. We weren’t duelling the Post Office, we were making a film about Subpostmasters who blamed the Post Office for ruining their lives, and we were looking for answers.

Jason Beer KC, who was questioning Perkins on behalf of the Inquiry asked:

“Do you understand this to mean that refusing to provide a spokesperson would be a tactic used by the Post Office in the hope that the BBC would not broadcast because of a perceived lack of balance?”
“That is what this is saying, yes”, replied Perkins.
“Was what Mr Davies wrote here your view of what was happening: that the Post Office was duelling with the BBC?” Beer asked.
“It would have been his view”, replied Perkins. “I wasn’t engaged in this.”
Beer widened it out. “Was the Post Office viewing itself as being embroiled in a battle against the campaigning subpostmasters?”
“I think it was, yes. I think it was”, replied Perkins.
“Were staff fighting to protect the reputation of the Post Office?”
“People were fighting to protect the reputation of the Post Office, as we now know, based on a completely wrong understanding of the facts.”
“Is that how the scandal was then viewed internally by Post Office staff: a rather bloody PR battle in which they were entrenched against the campaigning subpostmasters?”
“I wouldn’t use those words”, sniffed Perkins

Davies’ Worthy Battle

Beer took Perkins to an email from Belinda Crowe replying to Mark Davies, still on 14 Dec. Crowe told her fellow exec: “we are on really dodgy ground if we get into the detail of cases. However, as you know we have some good answers to some of the points raised and provided we can position this in a way that under no circs can it be construed as commenting on a case we should be in quite a strong position with our statement. I am trying to keep thinking of Kipling.”

Beer wondered if she was calling to mind the famous Kipling poem If:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

“I imagine that that is”, said Perkins. “I’ve no idea.”

Davies responded to Crowe’s reference with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt. “I’ll try to do this justice” said Beer as he read it out to the Inquiry:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, with great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end of the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

If ever you wanted a window on a completely batshit corporate mentality, as promulgated by Strong Man Mark Davies, face marred by sweat and blood, beating down those moany Subpostmasters with his bare hands and unlimited financial resources, this was it.

“Does this give an insight into what Mr Davies saw as his role at the Post Office?” asked Beer.
“He must have been feeling under a lot of pressure”, replied Perkins.
“Was it your view that the Post Office team regarded themselves as marred by dust and sweat and blood in a worthy battle against their Subpostmasters?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t have put it like that”, said Perkins.

Whilst Perkins can afford to be glib, this matters. The culture and attitude Davies brought to bear on this scandal had a real world effect. Davies had already persuaded his CEO not to open an investigation into past prosecutions of Subpostmasters because it might cause bad PR, and by Dec 2014 Vennells had become a simpering cheerleader for Davies’ methods.

We’ve already seen the sickening hero-gram Vennells sent to Davies (and Perkins) after our second One Show piece went out on 17 December. The film featured Jo Hamilton, the late Julian Wilson, Noel Thomas, Lee Castleton and a serving Subpostmaster from Nelson in South Wales, called Steve Phillips.

In her email review, Vennells told her team the concerns raised by the campaigning former Subpostmasters left her “bored” and that Hamilton “lacked passion”. The next day Vennells sent another email turning her ire on Steve Phillips. Addressing the Post Office’s top legal person, Chris Aujard, Vennells wrote:

“Chris, if you didn’t see the One Show, please can you watch the clip – again I expect we are best to do nothing at this stage but Steve Phillips is completely out of order, inaccurate at best, lying at worst. And has wilfully collaborated to [bring] us into disrepute. Any views?”

She’s looking to fuck him up.

This email was discussed at the Inquiry yesterday with Alice Perkins by Angela Patrick, Jo Hamilton’s barrister.

Patrick asked Perkins: “is this just another example of the belligerent language we had seen being used in the business when talking about campaigning Subpostmasters? “Wilfully collaborated in bringing us into disrepute”, what do you think of that language?”
“Well, looking at this now, obviously it looks absolutely dreadful”, said Perkins.

But Vennells was proud of herself, and keen for Alice Perkins to see her thoughts, forwarding her both the “bored” email from 17 Dec and the 18 Dec one above containing her views on Steve Phillips.

Angela Patrick sitting next to Jo Hamilton (r)

“Did you take issue with what Ms Vennells was saying?” asked Patrick.
“I may have done but I simply do not remember this”, replied Perkins.
“We’ve seen the first [email] and I’ve read it out, she was congratulating Mark Davies for a job well done. This was a win she wanted you to see, wasn’t it?”
“It would look like it, yes”, replied Perkins.

There is no evidence of Perkins doing anything about her CEO’s language or attitude towards Phillips or the campaigning Subpostmasters. This allowed Davies and Vennells and Crowe and van den Bogerd and Aujard and Williams and Flemington and Singh to continue in their grotesque attempts to belittle and besmirch their innocent victims for another five years.

* Read the full transcript of Mark Davies Radio 4 interview here. It remained the only interview with any serving Post Office executive about the scandal until my BBC Sounds interview with current CEO Nick Read nine years later. Listen to that here.
Read the first Dispatches from the Post Office Bunker, here.
Read more about an emboldened Mark Davies and his interactions with the BBC in 2015 here.
For a full transcript and video of Day 2 of Alice Perkins’ evidence, click here.
For live tweets from Alice Perkins’ evidence, with plenty of document screenshots (inc Davies’ Roosevelt email and Vennells 18 Dec email), click here.
For a write-up of another extraordinary document (discussing Vennells’ sacking) to come out of yesterday’s evidence, click here.
To support my presence at the Inquiry and the writing on this website, see below.


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29 responses to “More dispatches from the Post Office bunker: the PR guy goes Tonto”

  1. Curious about why none of the secret recordings second sight made have not been put to Vennells and Ven Den Bogerd in the inquiry. Smoking gun.

    Surely they are not inadmissible as evidence?

  2. Catherine Church avatar
    Catherine Church

    Thank you so much Nick for all this incredible work – I have been obsessed with the theatre of this (theatre person here) – the psychological intrigues of this and how an earth this toxic corporate rabbit holes – layers upon layers of bureaucracy ….leading to bad communication and endless unhealthy emails – never meeting people – just emailing …. bullying undercover of management speak – the odious Alice Perkins in some ways I found more disturbing than any of the others …doing light gardening whilst emailing for her obscene over paid ‘2 days’ and destroying people’s lives ..

  3. Mark Davies performed his designated job in exemplary manner.

    Think about it.

  4. Roger Whitewick avatar
    Roger Whitewick

    Just a reminder: Post Office was one of UK’s most trusted institutions when Mark Davies joined. When he left, the ‘brand’ he was defending had its reputation in tatters. Not great PR and I’m not sure even Teddy Roosevelt would have been impressed.

  5. After all we now know, would anyone want to buy a post office? Anyone who has one for sale, must have a hard job to sell it – if he or she can!

  6. Conlusion? Mark Davies, Paula Vennels et al are personas non grata im every sense………

    1. he is giving her one z oops sorry 😞

  7. Gerard Killoran avatar
    Gerard Killoran

    ‘If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,’

    Perhaps you’ve misjudged the situation.

  8. I can’t help thinking that one of the phenomena here is that the Post Office reached a point, quite early on, where the thought of ‘coming clean’ about the Horizon issues became simply too embarrassing to contemplate. Put another way, no one, at whatever level, possessed the courage to, as the Inquiry has heard, ‘look under or lift the rock’. Over time that issue changed from one of embarassment into an existential threat to the organisation. If we do look, everything will implode, so we can’t and we won’t. As people joined the organisation, at whatever level, they all, whether consciously or unconsciously, became part of that phenomenon and blithely accepted the narrative of ‘nothing wrong here’. ‘If everyone has bought into that view from time immemorial, it must be me who has the wrong end of the stick. If I start asking questions I’ll look stupid/foolish/ridiculous/a traitor.’ No matter how many clues emerged to prompt the asking of questions, they weren’t sufficient to overcome the inertia and ‘group think’ within the Post Office.

    Only that rationale seems to explain the persistent incuriosity of executives/the board and the apparent reluctance of even senior personnel to pass on ‘bad news’ such as the legal advices or to explore and spell out the implications of the more technical appraisals of Horizon. I say apparent reluctance because it seems, to me, incomprehensible that something as fundamental and objective as the advice about Gareth Jenkins’ probity was not disseminated. What can have transpired? How was it of benefit to the various general counsels, notwithstanding any conventions within the organisation, not to inform members of the executive and the board? What can they have been thinking?

    The stance of the Post Office was penetrated only from the outside, by Alan Bates and the JFSA, Second Sight and the MPs who supported them and only then after a very long campaign. I am sure that, left to its own devices, the scandal would have been buried within the Post Office, never to emerge. Reference the, ‘oh yes, now it all seems obvious with hindsight’ comments from various witnesses. It was always obvious, had anyone possessed the courage to look.

    1. They were more interested in setting up all the positions and processes for POL to separate from RM and be a ‘company’of sorts

    2. well said

  9. Mark Davies is toxic – the sort of media control freak who wouldn’t be out of place in the Kremlin. They share the same paranoid distrust of the free press and media.

    There will be no love, except the love of Post Office. . . . Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the Davies future, imagine a boot stamping on a sub postmasters face forever. Post Office is watching you.

    How could the Refugee Council employ such a freedom hating apparatchik, such a poor excuse for a human being?

    Just asking for a friend.

  10. I am longing to see a league table of POL salaries, bonuses, pensions published. How much was Alice Perkins paid for “two days a week” as Chairman of POL? How much paid in pension contributions? We’ve had to listen to a lot of pseudo high-minded guff about public money. We should know how much this self-serving crew were coining for their personal coffers.

  11. Genuine question – did Post Office as an employer attract a decent proportion of those in the population who were particularly venal, sociopathic and incompetent without any self-awareness? Stronger adjectives are available.

    Or did these characters start off fairly normal (human even) but a stint of time at the upper echelons of POL turned them into the caricatures we’ve been seeing at this inquiry?

    1. Not sure any professionals worth their salt would be tempted to work for the Post Office

      1. I agree with you. Anyone really talented would see the PO as a blemish on their cv.

  12. This information about Davies is fascinating, Nick. He appears positively unhinged. And, of course, as Ms Perkins revealed, Davies had been her husband Jack Straw’s special adviser (spAd) in Government. Ms Perkins knew that Davies was unhappy where he was currently working and was instrumental in bringing Davies on board (after the correct recruitment procedures had been followed, naturally). Perkins thought Davies was ‘eminently qualified, both in terms of his experience and also his public service values’. This would be comedy gold had the results of Davies’s adversarial approach not been so catastrophic.

    It’s not what you know, but who you know. Entirely by coincidence, no doubt, Ms Perkins was made a CB (Companion of the Order of the Bath) in the Birthday Honours List 2002 List at the time her husband was Foreign Secretary. It seems there is little chance that Perkins she will be forced to hand the CB back, even though there is a precedent. The former joint head of the Government Economic Service, Vicky Pryce, had her CB officially cancelled and annulled in 2013 after being released from an eight-month prison sentence having been convicted of perverting the course of justice. The case involved her accepting driving licence penalty points for her former husband, Chris Huhne.

    Recommendations to revoke an honour generally centre on holders bringing the honours system into disrepute.
    So what’s worse – accepting driving licence penalty points or being implicated in what’s been described as the greatest miscarriage of justice in British history?

  13. I think the GB public also need to look at themselves and their collective role in this tragedy – wanting the PO service of their dreams at a ludicrous price.
    In the 21st century as the volumes declined dramatically, trying to make a profit became a herculean task. The result is that the “management” it attracted had to be chancers/incompetents or a genius.
    At the Inquiry we see that it is incompetent chancers! Those who relied on third parties – colleagues,consultants, lawyers, PR firms etc to cover themselves and their bad decisions.
    At their heart the “management” chose to blame their “dishonest employees” for their own failures. HORIZON confirmed their view and became their “spiritual god”. They had to believe in it, to do otherwise would be to admit to their own shortcomings and failures.

    1. Alan Cornforth avatar
      Alan Cornforth

      Bernie,
      Since 2012 the price of a first-class stamp has doubled and as a regular Ebay seller I am tired of constantly changing my postage costs as it gets higher every year. So, I very much doubt that I will beat myself up at your suggestion that I am in anyway responsible for wanting anything more than value for money from a service I pay for!

  14. Oliver Harrison avatar
    Oliver Harrison

    More concerning was her idea to get in touch with Clare Sumner to try and nobble the BBC. That was shocking.

  15. Steven Ksiezak avatar
    Steven Ksiezak

    brilliant update and summary Nick

  16. Very revealing, Nick – thanks!

    I am preparing my strike at the teflon-coated-till-know Adam Crozier at the BT AGM. Just had this:

    BT GROUP PLC
    ‌2024‌ ‌ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING‌
    Vote by ‌05-JUL-2024‌ (Vote now)
    As an investor in this security, you have the right to vote on important issues. Make your voice heard now.
    Control Number: ‌300025319XXXX
    Account Number: ‌7XX
    Meeting Date: ‌11-JUL-2024
    ISIN Number: ‌GB0030913577‌

    To view information and vote on decisions relating to your shareholdings please follow the steps below:
    1. Log in to your account on our website or mobile app
    2. Open the ‘Portfolio’ menu on the website or tap the ‘Profile’ icon in the app
    3. Select ‘Voting mailbox’ from the list

    If you need to ask us a question about our Voting & Information Services, the easiest way to get in touch is by secure message.
    To send us a secure message please follow the steps below:
    1. Log in to your account on our website or mobile app
    2. Select ‘Secure messages’ from your ‘Account’ menu on the website or the ‘Profile’ icon in the app
    3. Click on ‘Compose’ and select ‘Shareholder information’ from ‘Message Topic’ dropdown list
    4. Write your message and send.

    ====================

    I’ve little interest in voting, and great interest in attending and speaking.

  17. ALAN MCLAUGHLIN avatar
    ALAN MCLAUGHLIN

    Davies is a classic playground bully, only in this case one using unlimited financial resources to denigrate, stigmatise & prosecute individuals who felt isolated & powerless before an unjustified corporate assault on their livelihoods & integrity.

  18. Robert Parker avatar

    If you think about it Mark Davis was actually doing ‘his job’ really well for many years – and so very nearly pulled it off.
    The vast majority of organisations – public and private sector, even charities, have versions of him. They are adopting many of his ‘news management’ tactics day-in, day-out. And many, like him, are ex-journalists.
    The wider scandal here is the sheer amount of resources that organisations allocate to the field of so-called reputation management – which nearly always sits within Corporate Communications

  19. Is the Theordore Roosevelt quote also in Jack Straw biography ‘Last Man Standing’ ?

    1. It is – on the page after the title page and before the dedication page saying ‘For Alice’.
      It’s a wonder Alice Perkins didn’t recognise it and volunteer the quote was in ‘Last Man Standing’.

  20. Mark Davies remains as Head of Communications for the Refugee Council. I hope he treats them in a more empathetic way than he did any subpostmaster.

  21. Angela Teasdale avatar
    Angela Teasdale

    Thank you Nick for this brilliant precis. The Roosevelt thing made me shout at the screen using words I rarely utter. As you say – a unique insight into a mentality most of us will never be able to understand. Mr Beer was brilliant as usual. Unless I am mistaken, there seems to have been much less in the media about Ms Perkins (the focus has been the D Day Anniversary perhaps which is absolutely as it should be). She should certainly be receiving as much media scrutiny as Ms Vennells and the rest of the hideous POL bunch. Thanks again for all your hard work.

    1. I complained to the BBC about their coverage last week – on day two or three of AP testimony a single article that focused on and had a picture of the Vennels, two thirds of the way down the front page of the website, just after the second article on Michael Moseley and before a piece on Roy Keane being elbowed. Does Alice have friends at the BEEB by any chance?

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