Post Office IT scandal shows the assumption that the digital route is always the best is fundamentally wrong - Sarah Todd

Acres have already been written about the widely-acclaimed ITV drama about the Post Office scandal. Circumstances made us latecomers to the programme, finally watching the four-part Mr Bates vs The Post Office over the weekend just gone.

It was further credit to the actors that, having already read so much about the storyline in the newspapers and seen the series mentioned on the news; they still captured our imaginations and had us engrossed from the very first scene. Now that doesn’t happen very often; that you watch something that you have heard all about and still end up wide-eyed devouring every single second of it.

There was, for this correspondent, a particular affinity with the character Jo Hamilton, played by Monica Dolan. A lady of a certain age, she was shown as a key victim and ended up remortgaging her house to pay off the amounts the Horizon computer system kept wrongly showing she owed.

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Eventually she was falsely accused of stealing £36,000 from the Post Office branch she ran from within her traditional village shop. Turns out, rather than some criminal mastermind, she was just a lovely lady who enjoyed baking buns.

A Post Office sign in central London. PIC: Aaron Chown/PA WireA Post Office sign in central London. PIC: Aaron Chown/PA Wire
A Post Office sign in central London. PIC: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

Her frustration with technology struck a real chord and it was agony to watch her on the back foot, not understanding what she was apologising for but being made to feel stupid and saying sorry anyway.

Nobody should be made to feel of sub-standard intelligence for not being 23 and having some sort of a degree in computer science. This must surely happen to some poor person every day of the week and it shouldn’t be allowed. As an aside, even a trip to the supermarket these days makes certain shoppers feel like second class citizens.

“You not got the app?” the checkout staff ask, a mixture of pity and condescension in their voices.

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Coming from a crossover time (as a teenage reporter there was still one old hack in the newsroom who insisted on using a typewriter to rattle out his column every week) it’s all too familiar. The shorthand notebook and pen mark this scribe out as from a bygone era, yet there are bits and pieces on a screen that can be managed easy peasy.

There has been a noticeable shift in society that presumes that computers and other technology are always the right way to go about something. That somebody who can log a complaint, for example, from behind a screen is somehow more worthy of help than the person who writes a letter. Both ways of communicating have their place, but the assumption that the digital route is always the best is fundamentally wrong and to society’s detriment.

Businesses and services trading in this country should be made by law to have telephone numbers where a real human being based in the UK can be spoken to. Of course, we all saw that the helpline for Post Office sub-postmasters struggling with the computer system was as much use as the proverbial chocolate fireguard but the way everybody these days is fobbed off with trying to find answers to questions online is just not good enough.

Every so often, for the last goodness knows how many months, the website for the Government’s environment and farming department Defra has been logged onto. Now that is easier said than done for starters. Time and again an attempt is made to register some new fields. The department has a telephone helpline and always, after almost giving up the will to live and navigating countless options to press for this option or the other, some young buck comes on and makes absolutely no sense of explaining this online mapping system.

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Just like poor Jo from Mr Bates vs The Post Office yours truly ends up saying sorry and apologising for being thick and not understanding the computer system.

A belated New Year resolution now has to be to stop taking the blame, to put the boot on the other foot and instead ask why the system is so difficult to navigate.

Yes, if there is a lasting legacy of the Post Office and this rotten to the core computer system, it should be to make sure nobody is ever made to feel like Jo and the others from this sorry saga. They thought they were the only ones that were struggling; when the reality turned out to be they were far from alone.

Anybody who has ever been made to feel a second-class citizen for getting flummoxed by some online system or other should speak up. Not understanding something isn’t a crime. Who knows, it might even turn out that the system - not the user - is the problem.

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