For me, the main learning in the Post Office scandal isn’t about the massive scale, it’s about the small, individual, human reaction.
Each postmaster and sub-postmaster thought they were the only one.
Seven HUNDRED innocent people were accused of fraud or outright theft.
Each person knew they were innocent, each one knew it must be a mistake.
But how could it be a mistake when they were the only one?
So they gave their money to the Post Office; they used their life savings, they borrowed from their relatives, they sold their houses.
All to pay back money they hadn’t taken in the first place.
All because the computer system said they’d taken it, and when they called the helpline they were told they were the only one.
The Post Office helpline staff were told to tell people that there were no problems with the computer system, they were the only one.
Some people pleaded guilty because they knew no one would believe them, because they were the only one.
Some people committed suicide because they didn’t know what was happening, and they were the only one.
The reason the Post Office was capable of fraud on such a massive scale was that they told all these people they were the only one.
When the malfunctioning computer problem came to light, it was revealed that 700 people had been falsely prosecuted for errors that weren’t their fault.
700 innocent people were lied to, vilified, bankrupted, imprisoned, or committed suicide because they were told they were the only one.
That’s a massive insight into how to control people.
Convince them they are the only one, convince them they are different to everyone else.
No one wants to be the only one.
We learn it when we’re young, in the playground.
We don’t want to be the odd-one-out, to be mocked and looked down on by everyone else.
We want to be in a group, there’s safety in a group.
But for a group to exist it needs someone who’s outside the group.
Someone the group can ostracise and pick on.
This is what philosophers call the ‘other’, the other defines the group by being outside it.
So identifying an outsider is called ‘othering’, no one wants to be the other.
We learn in the playground, that terrible feeling when people are looking at us and talking about us and we’re on our own, the outsider.
And that feeling subconsciously stays with us all our lives, that feeling runs us.
We need to be part of the group, so we learn to accept whatever the group thinks.
We don’t question whether or not it makes sense, we just go along with it.
There’s safety in thinking like everyone else, there’s risk in thinking differently.
That’s why the postmasters thought they were going crazy, it was cognitive dissonance.
They knew they weren’t guilty, but they knew the Post Office couldn’t be wrong.
And it stayed that way until one man, Alan Bates, discovered lots of postmasters who had been told they were the only one.
Then he formed a group called ‘Justice For Postmasters Alliance’.
Hundreds of people joined the group, each of them said the greatest relief was finding out that they weren’t the only one.
Now the people who’d been ostracised, shunned, robbed, and victimised, had a group.
Now their group could get their story told in the local press.
Once it had been in the local press it was easier to get it into the national press.
Once it had been in the national press, it was easier to get it onto television.
Once it had been on television it was easier to get politicians interested.
Once politicians were interested it was easier to get documentary makers interested.
Once documentary makers were interested it was easier to get a TV drama made.
Once the TV drama was made the entire country was outraged.
Once the entire country was outraged the government got involved.
Once the government got involved the convictions were squashed and everyone who’d been prosecuted was given apologies and compensation.
Because the postmasters were now in a group that was bigger than the Post Office: public opinion.
Weakness comes from believing we are the only one.
But most of us belong to what J F Kennedy called “the silent majority”.
It’s very tough believing we are the only one, but as St Augustine said:
“Right is right even if no one else is doing it.
Wrong is wrong even if everyone else is doing it.”