The dramatisation of what has been called “the UK’s most widespread miscarriage of justice” should be a warning to the Church and Christians everywhere that truth is more important than reputation. We must fight for it at all costs


Source: ITV

Anyone who watched ITV’s Mr Bates vs the Post Office this week may have felt like throwing the remote control at the screen, such was the travesty of justice that unfolded in this excellently-told true story. 

Based on events over the last 20 years, we witness the systematic undoing of hardworking sub-postmasters due to a fault in Horizon, the Post Office computing system, which created false negative cash balances.

Aware that books weren’t balancing, staff reached out to the Horizon helpline or the Post Office audit team only to be told that the loss of cash must be their fault. Demands for repayment followed, often for sums over £10,000. Isolated, and with no means to defend themselves, many sub-postmasters had to borrow money to repay the cash. Many lost their homes, health, families and businesses. Some were sent to prison. A few completed suicide.

When we part company with the truth, injustice inevitably follows

Alan Bates was one of those sub-postmasters. He avoided legal action, but lost his Post Office contract. As he became aware that his was not an isolated case, he set up a website and began contacting others who had been treated similarly. Eventually, they brought a group legal case against the Post Office. Despite victory in the courts, many sub-postmasters have still not been properly compensated. A public inquiry was eventually launched and remains ongoing. 

Protect and defend

The Post Office reaction to the crisis is jaw-dropping. The board, led by Paula Vennells (a non-stipendiary minister, ordained in the Church of England) refused to entertain that the error was internal. 

What led them to act with such cruelty and lack of self-reflection? It appears that an internal desire to protect the good name of the organisation, coupled with disbelief that their system could be faulty, lies at the heart of the issue. Decent people became collateral damage in the process.

The story is sadly familiar, and the Church is not exempt. Across all denominations, leaders have occasionally acted fraudulently with funds, emotionally manipulated their congregation or sexually abused those in their care. And the Church response has often been exactly like the Post Office: a desire to protect the institution and a disbelief that our leaders are no better, and sometimes worse, than the rest of us. How many bishops have sponsored a perfunctory investigation with the aim of minimising the reputational damage to their church rather than seeking the truth?

As Christians we believe Jesus when he said: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). All truth, however mundane, finds its source in Jesus himself.

In seeking an easy way out of what appeared to be a local skirmish among the Jews, Pontius Pilate agreed to subject Jesus to a trial. Under cross-examination, Jesus tells the Roman governor that he “came into the world to testify to the truth” (John 18:36). Pilate famously responds: “What is truth?” (v37). Cynically setting aside the idea that truth is even a thing to be aspired to, Pilate created the conditions that would bring about the greatest injustice of all time, the death of Jesus, God incarnate.

Seeking truth

When we abandon our commitment to the truth, justice is the first casualty. This is why dictators rely on the smokescreen of lies and state-controlled media. It is why we need to be concerned about the creeping influence of lies in public life and the abuse of AI to generate and propagate deceptive imagery, fake news and swing elections.

How many bishops have sponsored a perfunctory investigation with the aim of minimising reputational damage rather than seeking the truth?

In our personal life, cancelling a restaurant booking by saying we are ill is easier than admitting we changed our minds. Mangling the story we tell our boss to avoid taking the blame for an error is easier than holding our hands up. Lies like these run through society like corrosive acid. It sloshes around board rooms, organisations and even our government. When we part company with the truth, injustice inevitably follows.

Alan Bates dedicated more than 20 years of his life to the pursuit of truth and justice. When a lie seems like an easy way out of a sticky situation, think of people like him. As Christians, may we be those that doggedly defend the truth against all odds.