Post Office Corporate 3

I can’t remember the last time a TV drama provoked such a reaction as Mr Bates vs The Post Office. It’s not difficult to see why.

Rarely has a public policy issue been painted in such vivid primary colours: the Post Office immoral, almost evil, and the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses wronged beyond reason. And the main characters: Paula Vennells (as curated and cremated by Lia Williams) brittle, venal, hypocritical. Alan Bates, as played by the incomparable Toby Jones, kind, sensible, righteous.

Personally, if ever anyone makes a drama in which I feature, I want to be played by Alex Jennings. He looks nothing like James Arbuthnot (and in his last big thing – Unforgotten – he was a psychopathic serial killer) but as the MP here, he oozed outraged decency. That’ll do for me.

So what have we learned, and what can the industry take from this truly wonderful drama?

If you have a big story to be told on TV either in documentary or drama form, do all you can to be scheduled straight after the new year. And don’t worry too much about the viewing figures: Luke Littler got twice as many viewers on the night of the World Darts final (a Sky TV record) but Jones/Bates made the weather in a spectacular way.

A good story can be an old story. It’s been more than 20 years since the sub-postmaster story began to run. It’s been told dozens of times. Rightly, several journalists have won awards for their work. But Jones, Jennings, Williams and a cast of excellent actors brought the story alive and created an instant micro-climate of national outrage. Astonishing.

Read more: Sunak announces new legislation to exonerate Post Office victims

Don’t get deceived by the tabloids’ first reaction. In the run-up to a general election, it isn’t surprising Lib Dem Leader Ed Davey cops it for what the Daily Mail unfairly called uselessness, even though he is just one of 19, mostly Conservative, postal affairs ministers.

The real story of incompetence isn’t rubbish ministers, it’s scarily bad CEOs, chairs and NEDs who all looked the other way. Top names from two decades of the high command of UK plc – including Bryan Nicholson, Adam Crozier, Donald Bryson and many, many more – can all be charged and found guilty of being asleep at the wheel. One might reasonably question the purpose of NEDs if they don’t call executives to account.

The case against successive generations of Post Office senior management is ever so simple. They were running a public company that happens to be at the centre of national life. Their business is in every high street and every community. Over a period of not that many years, more than a thousand of their key frontline local managers were accused, and many convicted, of criminal offences. Did they not notice? And if they did, why on earth did they not think either something was very wrong with their selection process, or that they should sack their HR and operations teams for their stupidity in choosing the wrong people?

If you or I were Post Office NEDs, would we not weep for our utter and abject failure to get this right? Vennells says in the show the Post Office is the most trusted brand on the high street. As a former director of Boots, I was tempted to protest – but then I thought ‘how are the mighty fallen’. Thank god it’s not us.

It really might happen to you. We all need to take a long look at our operations and apply the Alan Bates test: what could go wrong, and what would we do if it did? Most importantly, would we – like Vennells et al – just try to keep it quiet? It’s a completely natural instinct and it’s utterly fatal. As Vennells is now finding out.