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Leader comment: Post Office traumatic stress and disorder

12 January 2024

LOYALTY is a virtue that is currently undergoing a refit. Loyalty to friends is commendable, although there are circumstances, criminal behaviour for example, after which ties are expected to be severed. Loyalty to colleagues and institutions, however, is now viewed with universal suspicion. Worst of all is the desire to protect your organisation from reputational damage — although, of course, a whole industry has grown up to advise people how to do exactly this. No doubt a PR troubleshooter would advise us to downplay the fact that the Revd Paula Vennells, the former chief executive of the Post Office, was a trustee of the Hymns Ancient & Modern charity, owner of the Church Times, serving a full nine-year term that ended in January 2019. But we should be as open as we expect others to be. Ms Vennells combined personal warmth with professional oversight and, like the rest of the trustees, made no attempt to interfere with the editorial content of this paper — for which the editor remains solely responsible.

We have no particular insight into what happened at the Post Office — Ms Vennells’s decision to withhold her account of events until the official hearing later this year extends also to us — but we believe that, having called for an inquiry, the public ought to respect it as the correct forum in which the facts about the miscarriages of justice suffered by sub-postmasters and -mistresses can be established. It is there that Ms Vennells will have to explain how her concern for the reputation of the Post Office — which was part of her brief as chief executive and which, paradoxically, improved during much of her time in office — affected her handling of the Horizon IT affair. It is our view that she can be relied on to be honest, whatever the detriment to herself. Her decision this week to relinquish her CBE is an indication of that. We also imagine that her desire to support the victims and acknowledge past failings will override any residual loyalty to the Post Office, or to colleagues who did or did not advise her about the reliability of the financial IT system.

It is worth noting at this point that reputational management has continued at the Post Office since the scandal came to light and since Ms Vennells’s resignation. Expensive lawyers have been retained to handle compensation claims, and their actions have contributed to unacceptable delays in justice. It is standard PR advice — we have no knowledge whether this is the case at the Post Office — to protect present operations by putting the blame for any fault on one or two past employees rather than admit to any form of systemic, corporate failure. In a matter where justice has been so blatantly obscured and ignored, it would be wrong to add a further injustice by laying the blame on a single individual, as seems to have been the desire this week.

Angela TilbyLetter; Press, and TV

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