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The BBC vs The Post Office: The Undeclared Conflict of Interest as Panorama Investigated the Horizon Scandal

John Sweeney, who worked on the 2015 BBC documentary, explores how the Post Office’s chair was also on the broadcaster’s board while the programme was in production – without declaring it

Photo: Theodore Liasi/Alamy

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In the summer of 2015 our BBC Panorama, Trouble At The Post Office, kept on not making the airwaves. Meanwhile, the chair of the Post Office, Alice Perkins, was leading its cover-up of the Horizon scandal from a secretive sub-committee, ‘Operation Sparrow’. At the same time, Perkins was also on the executive board of the broadcaster. She did not register this conflict of interest. Why?

The Post Office’s cover-up attempted to shut down doubts about its Horizon computer – the very subject of our Panorama. We had a whistle-blower who said Horizon made up numbers. The Post Office had a member of the BBC’s executive board working flat out to deny the basis of our story.

Perkins, Post Office CEO Paula Vennells, and its PR man Mark Davies, worked hard to silence our Panorama team from telling the stories of three extraordinary sub-postmasters: Jo Hamilton from Hampshire, Noel Thomas from Ynys Môn, and Seema Misra from West Byfleet.

Jo almost went to jail but pleaded guilty to false accounting. Noel was imprisoned in Liverpool. Seema was behind bars when she was eight weeks pregnant. 

All three told me that, when they said that Horizon was generating false numbers, they were told: “You are the only one.” That wasn’t a machine lie but a human one. 

But it’s only in recent days that I have fully understood the depth of the Post Office operation against us.


A Science Fiction Nightmare

The old 1980s Post Office telegram Puch moped the Panorama team made me ride up and down Hampshire’s rolling countryside was a pig, forever conking out uphill so that I had to get off and push. It was a good metaphor for our investigation into Horizon, but not an exact one. Horizon did something much more scary. 

The Post Office’s machine lied. Horizon warped reality, making up numbers so that good people went to prison for things that never happened. 

No wonder that the scandal has caused such a revolt against the figures and the institutions that sided with the machine that lied over the frail but true humans. It was a science fiction nightmare that came to the place in every town and village in our country where we get our stamps.    

Not only were bosses conned by a machine, they were paid a lot of good money to shut down questions about its lies. Corruption is a heavy word, and I am not using it against anyone embroiled in the Post Office scandal, but the money certainly prolonged the machine’s lifetime as a credible witness in and out of court while lives were being ruined. 

Trouble At The Post Office, when it was broadcast in August 2015, proved that the machine was lying. We got that from the horse’s mouth, Richard Roll, a former Fujitsu software engineer on Horizon.

He told me there were “a lot of errors, a lot glitches, coming through.” When I clarified, whether there were errors in the system, he replied: “There were errors with the system.” Note the change of preposition. 

A machine that lied, the power of money and an ancient British institution that had become a kind of cult. I put that analogy to the human nemesis of the machine, Alan Bates. He chuckled gently – eerily like Toby Jones in the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office and replied: “Paula Vennells was the High Priestess.” 

A second High Priestess was Alice Perkins who, in May, June and July 2015, lived with the mother of all conflicts of interest. I have trawled through the relevant BBC minutes for that period and I can find no declaration of it.

The Post Office Scandal: A Prosecuting Barrister’s Regret

Gareth Roberts reflects ruefully on his own part in the wrongful conviction of an innocent sub-postmaster and looks at what should be done to exonerate each of them

As a reporter, you learn to go in hard against the people you sympathise with. 

When I asked Jo Hamilton if she had a history of committing crime, she replied: “I hadn’t even had a parking ticket up until then so you know I don’t have a criminal history.”

Noel Thomas was a pillar of his community, nigh-on teetotal, chapel-going. “My cellmate was a Liverpool drug dealer,” he said. “He looked after me. I spent my 60th birthday in prison.” The shame in his voice was haunting. 

We cut the next bit but it was funny. “My cellmates threw a party for me,” Noel told me. “I’ve never seen so much alcohol in all my life.” Liverpool’s nicked drug dealers had a better understanding of human nature than the Post Office bosses. They knew Noel wasn’t a thief. 

Seema’s agony was the worst. “There is no evidence that I’ve taken any money, and then the jury came back with the verdict of guilty,” she told me, her voice breaking. “What I… had in front of me… my husband, my children and I’m pregnant at that time.”

Sentenced to 15 months, she said prison was “like a nightmare” and at one point she thought “I’m not going to get out of here alive, I’ll be dead.” 


Operation Sparrow

I put the sub-postmasters through the mill to test them, to make sure, as far as humanly possible, that they were not making things up.

The Post Office worked very hard to stop the programme being broadcast or to water it down – even though it and Fujitsu were sitting on internal evidence that Horizon was flawed. 

A report by consultants Ernst and Young sent to Post Office directors in 2011 warned that Fujitsu staff had “unrestricted access” to sub-postmasters’ accounts that “may lead to the processing of unauthorised or erroneous transactions”.

Perkins, a former senior civil servant, became chair of the Post Office the same year Ernst and Young reported on Horizon’s faults.

On 1 April 2014, while still chairing the Post Office, she was appointed to the BBC’s executive board. Then Director-General Tony Hall noted that her “wealth of experience at the highest levels of public life, as well as her experience of organisations going through change, will be immensely valuable as we make the BBC simpler and better run.” Hall’s press release has not aged well.

That very month, April 2014, Perkins led a Post Office sub-committee, Project Sparrow, according to documents brought to surface by Andy Verity of the BBC. 

Project Sparrow was set up in the wake of a 2013 report by Second Sight, independent auditors, which identified computer bugs that raised doubts over the reliability of Horizon data used to prosecute sub-postmasters. Rather than make the Second Sight findings public, Project Sparrow sidelined and then sacked the auditors and set out to limit payments to sub-postmasters who had lost fortunes. 

The project placed Alice Perkins at the heart of the Post Office cover-up, which makes her conflict of interest at the BBC all the more concerning. Perkins was in charge when the Post Office first heard of our Panorama programme on 19 May 2015. 

Post Office bosses Angela van den Bogerd, Patrick Bourke, and PR man Mark Davies insisted in an on-the-record briefing to my colleagues that Horizon was robust. Van den Bogerd said any changes “would leave a footprint”. While Bourke claimed that “it is 100% true to say we can’t change, alter, modify, existing transaction data, so the integrity is 100% preserved”. 

Logically, they were implying that the sub-postmasters must be thieves. Factually, they were wrong. Fujitsu was changing the data and that could change the postmasters’ reckonings. Both the 2011 report by Ernst and Young and the 2013 Second Sight report showed that the Post Office bosses were not being open with the Panorama team.  

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Mark Davies met Panorama’s then Editor Ceri Thomas for a meeting. According to the submission of ShEx – the government’s controlling body over the Post Office – to the public inquiry into the scandal, he had a “‘very substantial other written and oral briefing’ including several hours of meetings and six one hour calls with the Editor and his deputy”.

Our Panorama was due to be broadcast on 22 June. Then it was delayed until 29 June. Thomas put it on the shelf while he went on holiday for six weeks. 

He said this week that “the programme we made broke new ground and it’s stood the test of time extremely well” and that “I don’t know where ShEx got its information that I and my deputy had ‘several hours of meetings and six one hour calls with the Editor and his deputy’ but it’s categorically untrue”. 

According to Thomas, “we had one meeting as far as I can recall and a small number of phone calls which lasted minutes not hours. Those conversations were off-camera but not off-the-record. If any useful new information had come out of them it would have gone to the programme team but, in fact, the Post Office simply used them to repeat the refrain that Horizon was infallible and had no back-door.”

He said he was unaware of Alice Perkins’ “various roles” and had no contact with her at the BBC.

Trouble At The Post Office went out on 17 August 2015. 

Perkins quit the Post Office on 31 July 2015 but stayed on at the BBC for several more years.

When asked how, from mid-May until the end of July 2015, had she managed the conflict of interest of working for one British institution which was investigating another British institution she was chairing, Perkins did not respond.


Fleet Street’s Blind Eye

Our whistle-blower, Richard Roll, told the truth, that the Horizon machine was an error factory. From August 2015 onwards, the Post Office stopped prosecuting sub-postmasters where Horizon was part of the story.

Three million people watched Trouble At The Post Office, but the Post Office continued to deny, claiming that the BBC had broadcast “unsubstantiated allegations”. Its boss, Paula Vennells, told the government body which owns the Post Office that the programme “contained no new information and received almost no pick-up from other media”.

Vennells’ last seven words were true – to the shame of Fleet Street. With the exceptions of Private Eye and Computer Weekly, the media were rubbish in the early days. 

But Vennells’ “no pick-up” victory was not entire. One viewer of our Panorama was Patrick Green KC who, as a result, teamed up with Mr Bates and 550 other sub-postmasters to sue the Post Office. They won and that victory made the recent ITV drama possible. 

MPs of all colours stood up for their sub-postmasters, but a special mention should go to Lord James Arthbuthnot, Jo Hamilton’s then Conservative MP, who called for Vennells’ resignation in our Panorama. Instead, a Conservative Government awarded her a CBE.

In the round, I don’t think it’s fair to blame Ed Davey, Postal Affairs Minister up to 2012, or Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions up to 2013, for not challenging the Post Office head on – because they did not have the non-partisan evidence of Richard Roll to rely on. 

But, from August 2015, it is fair to question the lack of judgement of successive Postal Affairs Ministers. They knew that people had gone to prison on the basis of a machine that told lies. And they did too little about it, too late. 


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