A television series depicting what is considered one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in the history of the United Kingdom is achieving something that decades of complaints and protests could not have achieved.
The series deals with the so-called Post Office scandal, in which hundreds of innocent agency managers were accused of theft, fraud and tampering with the accounts of the British Postal Company.
Many were sentenced to prison for crimes they did not commit but were reported because of flaws in computer software, a web of lies, and negligence on the part of leaders and officials.
The victims have been trying to get justice for more than two decades. But there was no impact on the TV series Mr Bates vs Post Office He had.
The series has been well received on social media and in the press.
The issue has dominated debates in the British Parliament in recent days, and the government has been forced to guarantee multimillion-dollar compensation and judicial amnesty for innocent people convicted.
More than 1 million people have signed a petition calling for former postmaster general Paula Vennells to be stripped of her UK award. In the end, she renounced the honor herself.
And the series stirred public sentiment with calls for harsher penalties for the private company responsible for the disaster, so that British taxpayers don't have to pay for it.
But this is not the first time that the media has played an important role in this struggle.
The scoop on the scandal was published in Computer Weekly in 2009, and the case has been followed and reported extensively by dedicated journalists for years. In 2013, according to the journal, there were more than 300 articles on the subject.
The BBC produced an award-winning radio documentary series in 2020 and its investigative program Panorama later covered the case.
In 2021, Nick Wallis, one of the journalists who conducted a lengthy investigation into the case, published a book. The Great Post Office Scam.
The coverage continued, following and giving voice to the victims of the scandal, who little by little added some success.
However, it was the telecast of the series produced by British channel ITV from January 1, 2024 that sparked enormous public interest and increased pressure on the authorities.
The four episodes of the drama series did not feature any major events Mr Bates vs Post Office It is new.
However, they exposed the details of the corruption to public view.
But now how and why?
For one thing, the series captured viewers' attention in a way that a documentary couldn't, says Harry Farley, the BBC's political correspondent.
“Many victims of this scandal are shocked,” he says. “Their reputation is ruined and as a result they don't want to talk to journalists on camera.”
Through the actors, a real emotional drama unfolded and for the first time, the public could understand the extent of the scandal.
“More people know what happened, thanks to the ITV drama series,” says Farley.
This means that the number of people putting pressure on their representatives in Parliament has multiplied, expressing their concern and anger at what has happened.
And politicians who will be tested at the polls in this year's general election have a sudden interest in the case and an urgency to show they're working.
Post Office Limited (PO), a large equivalent of the United Kingdom Post Office, has a good reputation due to its long history dating back to 1660.
It has about 12,000 service stations across the country, in a system similar to that operating in Brazil, where notices are open to those interested in running the agency.
In the British case, many agencies are located in rural areas and small towns. They are an integral part of the community and their employees are respected.
Called “subpostmasters” in English, these units are run by franchise partners or independent business owners.
In addition to sending letters and parcels, these shops perform banking functions, provide all kinds of financial services, renew passports and driving licenses, and make social assistance and pension payments.
But between 1999 and 2015, the PO destroyed the lives of “subpostmasters” and their families, creating a nightmare of chaos, secrets and lies.
The company relentlessly pursued branch executives for alleged theft, fraud and false accounts.
During these years, it used its corporate powers to question and prosecute them for discrepancies in financial records.
However, inconsistencies started appearing only after the introduction of the new computer system installed in all the companies.
A defective software
Between 1999 and 2000, the PO implemented Horizon, an IT system developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu. The software was used for accounting and inventory control tasks.
“It was clear that the project was very fragile,” Richard Rolle, an engineer at Fujitsu between 2001 and 2004, told the BBC.
“A few weeks after I started working there, I told my boss, 'This needs to be scrapped and rewritten.'”
“His response was, 'That's not going to happen, do you have any idea how long it would take to redo it and how much it would cost?'
Roll assured that known errors in the system affect final balances, so there may be inconsistencies that users cannot explain.
That's what started happening at hundreds of post offices across the country.
Imagine a post office owner using the Horizon computer system to check in one night. He presses the button to close the accounts and there is a discrepancy of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pounds.
The accounts on paper say everything is fine, but the computer, inexplicably, calculates that there is a huge deficit.
He panicked when he learned that his contract with the PO contained a clause stating that the owner would be responsible for the missing money no matter what happened.
After calling tech support, they assure me that there is no other problem with the system.
The shop owner has two options: pay the shortfall immediately in cash or face trial with a high probability of imprisonment.
In all, about 3,500 post office owners were falsely accused of embezzling money.
Hundreds of men and women were tried and convicted. Penalties ranged from hundreds of hours of community service to prison.
After the conviction, many experienced severe financial problems or outright bankruptcy.
Even those who managed to avoid formal prosecution had to go into debt to cover the huge sums they owed.
Victims and their families suffered from scars, social rejection, stress and illness.
At least four corruption-related suicides have been recorded.
In 2009, Alan Bates, who had been fired years earlier for reporting problems with Horizon, formed the JSFA (Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance) campaign group to expose corruption.
He gathered 555 victims and sued the Postal Service, although for years the company was able to escape charges thanks to its powerful lawyers.
Despite press reports of problems with the Horizon system, its managers continued to insist that the technology was “robust”.
After a long battle, the JSFA team won a court case in 2019 that determined the sentences handed down were unfair and that the Horizon organization was to blame.
Some convictions were overturned and other cases were reviewed, paving the way for those wrongly accused to receive compensation.
To date, around £32 million has been awarded in damages.
But the PO has been criticized for delaying payments. Furthermore, dozens of victims died before compensation was awarded and the costs allocated to legal defense severely reduced compensation.
In contrast, PO executives received bonuses tied to corruption investigations in 2021.
No one from the Post Office or Pujaistu claimed responsibility.
After the uproar caused by the TV series, the British political class had no choice but to restart the debate on the topic.
The British government has proposed to approve a law granting judicial amnesty to all “sub postmasters” involved in corruption.
As a result, more than 900 people may have their convictions overturned, making a total of more than 4,000 eligible for compensation.
There are several proposed compensation plans. In one, the government offered a one-off payment of £75,000 to each victim.
But it is believed that a significant number of affected people will not accept this compensation because it does not cover the economic and emotional damage they have suffered.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the “significantly more vulnerable” would be able to “get more concessions”.
It will be around 600 thousand pounds (R$3.7 million), but it will not be available automatically.
However, the parliamentary inquiry continues with the aim of pointing out the culprits, looking for flaws in the entire process and finding lessons to be learned.
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