How a Show Forced Britain’s Devastating Post Office Scandal Into the Light

More than 700 people convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. At least four suicides. A woman sent to jail while pregnant. Bankruptcies. Marriages broken, lives ruined.

The shocking details of one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history have been reported for years yet somehow stayed below the radar for most of the public, despite intense efforts by campaigners and investigative journalists.

Until last week. A gripping ITV drama series, “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office,” which began airing on Jan. 1, achieved something that eluded politicians for a decade, cutting through a morass of bureaucratic and legal delays and forcing government action.

The show dramatizes the fate of hundreds of people who ran branches of the Post Office across Britain, and who were wrongly accused of theft after a faulty IT system called Horizon created false shortfalls in their accounting.

Between 1999 and 2015, they were pursued relentlessly in the courts by the Post Office for financial losses that never occurred. Some were jailed, most were driven into financial hardship, many suffered mental health issues and some took their lives.

Under pressure, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday promised a new law to exonerate and compensate all known victims, a sweeping intervention that aims to finally bring justice after years of glacial progress.

And the police suddenly said last week that they would investigate whether Post Office officials — who refused for years to admit that the IT they forced managers to use was at fault — should face charges. Meanwhile one of its former bosses, Paula Vennells, has handed back an honor bestowed by the queen in 2019, after more than a million people signed a petition demanding she be stripped of it.

All this has left an intriguing question: how has a TV show achieved in one week more than investigative journalists and politicians in more than a decade?

“However brilliant the journalism is, it maybe appeals to your intellect, to your head,” said Gwyneth Hughes, the writer of “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office.” “Whereas drama is designed to appeal to your heart — that’s what it has been doing for thousands of years.”

Mattias Frey, a media professor at City, University of London, argued that the drama shows the continuing power of terrestrial TV to change public perceptions and generate “one of those old fashioned water cooler moments” that fuels broader public debate.

Even the show’s executive producer, Patrick Spence, was surprised by the scale of the reaction. Before the show was broadcast, he told his team that they shouldn’t be downhearted if ratings were modest, given the competition for eyeballs.

The day after the series began he was informed by a colleague that more than 3.5 million people had watched the first episode. “I thought I had misheard her,” Mr. Spence said. Nine million people have now seen the series, according to ITV.

He believes the show has inadvertently become a state-of-the-nation drama, articulating “a bigger truth, which is that we don’t feel heard, and we don’t trust the people who are supposed to have our backs.”

The case is all the more shocking because the Post Office is an institution woven into the fabric of British life, more used to being portrayed in a benign role as in the popular TV show for children, “Postman Pat.”

An official inquiry into the scandal was established in 2020, and more than £148 million, or more than $188 million, has already been distributed to victims from compensation programs. In 2019, 555 branch managers successfully challenged the Post Office in the High Court.

Despite that, of the 700 criminal convictions, only 93 have so far been overturned, a sluggish pace that fueled campaigners’ anger.

Since ITV’s drama aired, more victims have come forward, but dozens of other people died before they could receive compensation. When Horizon declared branch accounts were in deficit, managers were contractually obliged to make up shortfalls.

Some paid from their own savings to avoid prosecution, even though they were sure they had done nothing wrong. Others pleaded guilty to lesser crimes to avoid jail although they were innocent.

One victim, Lee Castleton, whose plight was featured in the drama, told the BBC that his Horizon account would swing abruptly from profit to loss and that more than 90 calls to a help line proved useless. The Post Office, he said, was “absolutely hellbent” on not assisting him.

As news of his supposed wrongdoing filtered into the community, Mr. Castleton and his family were accused of theft in the street, his daughter was bullied at school and she developed an eating disorder. Forced to travel far afield to seek work, he slept in his car.

Such stories provide the beating heart of “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office,” which is the result of three years of work. The truth of what happened was “unbelievable,” said Ms. Hughes, the show’s writer. “If I wrote those things fictionally, nobody would believe me, people would switch off.”

The heroic Mr. Bates, played by Toby Jones, is portrayed as an even tempered and indefatigable character who — like other victims — was told by the Post Office that he was the only person to report problems with Horizon.

He found others, formed a group of victims, and pursued their cases with meager resources, battling a succession of setbacks to achieve an extraordinary victory in the courts.

“Everyone likes an underdog, and we had underdogs in spades,” said Ms. Hughes, adding that Mr. Bates might look like a mild-mannered bearded fan of real ale but is also “a terrier; he’s wise, he’s clever, he’s very good at forward planning.”

“He is, in a way, a gift as a character, he has a complexity: cometh the hour, cometh the man,” she said. “He’s led this long march of the misunderstood and unheard, and kept his sense of humor.”

A few politicians were allies in the victims’ cause, notably James Arbuthnot, a Conservative lawmaker (now in the House of Lords) who fought on behalf of a constituent wrongly accused of stealing £36,000.

There is also a cameo role for another Conservative lawmaker, Nadhim Zahawi, who played himself in the drama, questioning Ms. Vennells, the former Post Office boss, during a parliamentary committee hearing.

To viewers Ms. Vennells emerges as the obdurate face of the Post Office, someone determined to defend its reputation rather than engage with its victims, a stance all the more surprising because she is an ordained Anglican priest (although she stepped back from any major role in the church in 2021).

Fujitsu, the Japanese company that developed the Horizon system, is also under increasing pressure, with politicians hoping to recover some of the costs of compensating victims from the firm, which still has billions of pounds worth of contracts with the British government.

Professor Frey worries viewers may have seen a “simple David and Goliath story” whereas lawyers and politicians must grapple with something more complicated. He sees a risk that “the pressure that should be brought to bear on politicians in order to clean this mess up maybe comes in a way that is undifferentiated.”

Ms. Hughes has concerns about that too. “I hope they do right by all our lovely sub postmasters, but I also hope they find a way to do so that isn’t going to cause further problems down the line,” she said. “Thank God that’s not my job.”