Software Gone Wild Ensnares The Innocent In Searing PBS Miniseries

A four-part miniseries about one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history was so powerful that it spurred action at the highest level of the British government within days of its premiere in the U.K. in January.

Episode One of the series -- titled “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office” -- arrived in the U.S. Sunday on PBS “Masterpiece.” 

The series is a cautionary tale. For anyone who believes our modern technology is infallible, guess again.

“Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office” dramatizes the all-too-real story of how a financial-management software program ran amok starting in 1999 and ruined the lives of hundreds of local post-office managers in the U.K. who found themselves accused of theft, fraud and false accounting. 



The scandal destroyed reputations, careers, lives and marriages. It drained life savings, led to bankruptcies and imprisonments, and resulted in at least four suicides.

And as it turned out, none of the post-office managers (known as subpostmasters in the U.K.) were guilty of anything.

Into the breach stepped one of them, a subpostmaster named Alan Bates, who galvanized many of his victimized post-office managers into taking action.

The time period between the first round of arrests and job terminations in 1999 and a class-action suit brought by the subpostmasters against the British Post Office in 2017 was 18 years.

All through those years, the Post Office insisted there were no bugs or glitches in the software, a product of Fujitsu called Horizon.

Eventually, it was revealed that the Post Office knew about the problems all along. 

The star of “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office” is Toby Jones in the title role of Alan Bates. He is sensational, as always.

So is this show’s entire ensemble, demonstrating once again that the Brits have a certain way with acting on a high level that is theirs alone.

Episode One of “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office” seen Sunday night was not the kind of heartwarming story about dimple-cheeked, plucky Brits who live harmoniously in their hamlets and villages with twinkles in their eyes.

Episode One seen Sunday (the remaining three episodes air the next three Sunday nights on PBS) was a scary, suspenseful experience as these subpostmasters -- many of whom had run their quaint village post offices for decades -- have their ordinary lives turned upside down through no fault of their own.

In real life, the victimized subpostmasters had some satisfaction in court, but they were never officially exonerated.

But last January, reportedly just a day after “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office” premiered over four consecutive nights on Britain’s ITV, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak introduced legislation to exonerate the subpostmasters who were convicted, and pay them each £75,000.

The following month, King Charles revoked the title of CBE (Commander of the British Empire), a high civilian honor, from Paula Vennells, Post Office CEO from 2012 to 2019.

Are these spoilers? Not really. It is all a matter of public record. But knowing these facts should deter no one from watching “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office.”

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