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  Opinion   Columnists  12 Jan 2024  Farrukh Dhondy | Victims of British Post Office scandal may get justice at last after 20 years

Farrukh Dhondy | Victims of British Post Office scandal may get justice at last after 20 years

In his words: "I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write."
Published : Jan 13, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Jan 13, 2024, 12:05 am IST

Navigating the Phases of Moonlight and AI Caution: A Journey through Poetry, Technology Pitfalls, and the Post Office Scandal

 A public inquiry into the scandal opened in February 2022 but has yet to examine who at the top of the Post Office knew what and when. On January 10, 2024, the former boss of the Post Office Paula Vennells said she would return a royal honour received from Queen Elizabeth II, as public anger mounts. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP)
  A public inquiry into the scandal opened in February 2022 but has yet to examine who at the top of the Post Office knew what and when. On January 10, 2024, the former boss of the Post Office Paula Vennells said she would return a royal honour received from Queen Elizabeth II, as public anger mounts. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP)

“Don’t long for the company of the moon

In less than twelve hours, she’s gone and soon

The day will break, the sun restored

The worry, the tasks, the frivolous chore

The moon is inconstant, sometimes full

Sometimes a crescent, they say its pull

Causes the seas and oceans to rise

O Bachchoo you’ve wondered if these are lies.”

From Devidin’s Locker, by Bachchoo

The contemporary world is replete with cautions about Artificial Intelligence. There have always been sceptics and opponents of scientific advance. Medical science had recently invented the anti-Covid vaccine and some suck-nut-conspiracy-Charlies said it was a plot by Bill Gates to control the minds of humanity.

They didn’t say whether Gates was attempting through such control to make people buy Word. Or was he in fact an outer space alien in cahoots with giant lizards who wanted to leave their planet and settle on a depopulated globally-warmed earth…? (See? One can get carried away in this conspiratorial world!)

Even so, some cautions about AI are convincing. I haven’t read any which say that Bill Gates, Elon Musk or even Infosys are inventing ways to control humanity. I have, using my limited common sense, gathered that AI will replace some human endeavour and put some people out of work -- as textile mills made sweating loom-workers redundant. I haven’t come across opinion which wants AI banned. Experimenting with it, I asked it to write a Shakespeare sonnet about the UK’s railway system. The result proved that AI is still in its infancy and not a hundred per cent convincing as a composer of sonnets in the Bard’s style.

No doubt soon AI will be able to compose sermons each Sunday to be broadcast – with holograms? -- in church, putting preachers out of work. I hope the Pope doesn’t read this and make his priests redundant -- I’d feel guilty.

Technology has its pitfalls. Anyone who uses a computer has experienced some let-down.

The worst my computer has done is swallowed weeks of work: swathes of a novel in progress. I then spent wasted time looking for recovery methods online. Nothing worked. (Lucky readers --Ed)

But compared to the scandal that has been highlighted in recent weeks by a drama on UK’s Independent TV network, my petty experience of computer-duplicity is as a teardrop to a tsunami of suffering. (Rubbish analogy –Ed… Little poetry yaar --fd)

This scandal is not new. It began in 1999 when the Post Office in Britain introduced a computer accounting system called HORIZON, which was manufactured by the Japanese multinational Fujitsu. These computer inventions were installed in the premises of the sub-postmasters who operated post offices throughout Britain’s cities, towns and villages. These sub-postmasters were individuals and families running counters doing the post office’s work -- selling stamps, receiving and sending out mail, parcels etc.

The Horizon computers, with operatives in the postal headquarters, calculated the financial plus and minus from these transactions. Now computers didn’t, in 1999 at least, have a record or reputation for being malicious, though it’s certain that AI is today perfectly capable of either being instructed to be, or even independently conniving to inflict malice.

Horizon seemed to have done so. Between 1999 and 2015 the Post Office was informed by Horizon that 736 sub-postmasters were engaged in swindling it of money as thousands of pounds had disappeared unaccountably from their computer ledgers.

The Post Office concluded that these sub-postmasters had pocketed the cash and demanded it be returned. The sums were so huge that in several cases the bewildered, innocent sub-postmasters, terrified by the prospect of being jailed, had to sell or remortgage their homes.

They were relentlessly prosecuted for false accounting and theft.

Under the leadership of a one dogged victim, Alan Bates, they started a campaign which has lasted twenty years and resulted in 93 convictions being overturned. In those twenty years, the false accusations triggered by Horizon and diligently and relentlessly pursued by the Post Office’s senior officials, including chief executive Paula Vennels and even the Post Office minister of the time, Liberal Democrat MP Ed Davey appointed in David Cameron’s coalition government, resulted in miscarried jailings, bankruptcies, broken marriages, mental disorders, premature deaths and even one suicide.

Ms Vennels and Mr Davey told the prosecutors that Horizon was a hundred per cent reliable entity. Ms Vennels was awarded a CBE for her services to the Post Office -- such as they were -- in 2019.

At the end of last year after years of campaigning for justice by journalists, the satirical bi-weekly Private Eye and even the BBC, the ITV channel screened a drama about the scandal and historic miscarriages of justice and the campaign of the victims.

So, we have another instance of the power of the media as Hedgie Sunoch and his government have woken up to the fact that this historic scandal of British injustice must be put right. Hedgie has made all the right vote-conscious noises about putting things right and his justice secretary is contemplating a bill to quash all the convictions in one fell swoop.

There are objections as such legislation would be Parliament overruling the judiciary. But justice seems likely to be, tragically belatedly, done. And then there’s the question of compensation…

Now, under a demand in a petition signed by more than a million people, Ms Vennels, a preacher in the Anglican church, has returned her CBE. What an active conscience!

Tags: bill gates conspiracy theories, farrukh dhondy column, british post office scandal