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Jack Tame: Mr Bates vs The Post Office is a story about power

Jack Tame,
Publish Date
Sat, 6 Apr 2024, 9:36am
Photo / Getty
Photo / Getty

Jack Tame: Mr Bates vs The Post Office is a story about power

Jack Tame,
Publish Date
Sat, 6 Apr 2024, 9:36am

As the words spilled out of my mouth, I realised it didn’t make for much of a pitch. 

“I’ve got a show I want us to try.” I’d told my wife. 

“Oh yeah. What’s is about?” she asked. 

“Well... err... it’s about a scandal in Britain involving lots of post offices and an accounting dispute.” 

“Post offices?” She said. 

“Accounting? Riiight.” She said. 

Yes, it’s fair to say I hadn’t pegged ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ on an expectation of sex scenes, car chases, gunfights, and Hollywood heartthrobs. 

I’d actually only been vaguely aware of the Post Office scandal before the TV show was aired in Britain earlier this year. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s now routinely described as the greatest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. 

In short, Britain’s Post Office —arguably once Britain’s most trusted institution, and surely it’s most British institution— directed all of its subpostmasters, the people running the little village post offices you see all over the U.K, to use a new software system for balancing their books. 

But the software underpinning the system was faulty, meaning try as they might, subpostmasters routinely ended up with shortfalls. 

Despite thousands and thousands and thousands of complaints, the Post Office refused to accept there was anything wrong and they forced subpostmasters to make up the thousands of pounds in shortfalls with their own money. Most egregiously, between 1999 and 2015, 900 subpostmasters were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting. 

That number alone makes you spin. A handful of people being charged with stealing might be one thing. But 900! It’s remarkable there were any subpostmasters left. 

The legal efforts to overturn convictions and get the Post Office to take full responsibility and pay compensation has been a long, painful affair. The story has been covered by British media. It’s been raised in parliament. But it took a TV drama to really rattle the cage. 

It mightn’t have been much of a pitch, but within minutes of starting Mr Bates vs the Post Office, my wife and I were locked in. It was compelling. She had tears rolling down her cheeks and even I felt a bit misty-eyed (although I was naturally careful not to let her see me). 

I don’t know that I’ve ever watched a show and so desperately wanted it all to be resolved. And I cannot think of many TV dramas that have had more of an immediate impact. 

Immediately after it aired, the government announced legislation to overturn the wrongful convictions of hundreds of subpostmasters. More than a million people signed a petition calling for the former Post Office CEO to be stripped of her CBE. King Charles formally revoked it shortly thereafter. More than a billion pounds has been earmarked for compensation. 

I realised as the final credits rolled that of course, it wasn’t really a story about the Post Office and accounting. It was a story about power. About class. Mr Bates, David, vs The Post Office Goliath. 

And in an age where so much entertainment is fast and snackable, and we all have so much competing for our attention, it was a great reminder about the extraordinary power of really good storytelling. 

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