The Post Office faces a chasm of shattered trust, not a bridge to rebuild. For over two decades, the Horizon scandal – where faulty software and alleged cover-ups wrongly accused hundreds of sub postmasters of fraud – has cast a long, cold shadow. What started as a faulty accounting software, Horizon, spiralled into a devastating miscarriage of justice, wrongly accusing and prosecuting hundreds of sub postmasters for theft and fraud.
The consequences are stark: sub postmasters are quitting, livelihoods shattered, and communities left bereft of vital services. Ongoing media reports, where sub postmasters lament that "no one wants to buy a post office anymore," speak volumes. And the story is so media-cyclical, it will return with every twist and turn in the coming months, as predictably as a ride on a fairground carousel.
It's also surprising then, that the Horizon scandal appears so toxic, casting a long shadow of doubt on its leadership, reputation, and future, that no leader seems able to appear and get out in front of the debacle, with warmth, empathy and a promise of new beginnings. It’s taken a Commons select committee to force Fujitsu to do the same.
A CEO at a Crossroads: current CEO Nick Read faces a monumental task. Restoring public trust requires more than just apologies and financial compensation. Transparency, accountability, and a genuine commitment to rebuilding relationships with sub postmasters and the communities they serve are crucial. His efforts to say he’ll look at ways to improve earnings for sub – postmasters was met with derision when they responded with; “It’s so easy, just pay us more per transaction.” The next CEO, whoever it may be, will inherit a legacy of distrust, requiring exceptional leadership skills and a laser focus on ethical practices. The Commons committee of MPs for Business and Trade accused Mr Read of a ‘lack of corporate curiosity’ over his refusal to investigate his own organisation before 2015. Worse, MPs expressed they were “shocked” by the ‘evidence’ that CEO Read offered in not being able ‘to supply the committee with the key events in the timeline’, portraying a remarkable lack of preparation on the part of the CEO in getting to grips with the types of demands a select committee requests. His almost Michael Gove-like confident delivery, belied any meaningful substance when MP’s needed to look under the bonnet of the Post Office scandal.
Leaders in the Firing Line: The buck doesn't stop at the frontline. The scandal has exposed a culture of negligence and cover-up, raising questions about the moral compass of historic leadership at the Post Office. The decision to ignore internal concerns and whistleblower reports in 2013-15 paints a picture of prioritizing profit over people, leaving a deep stain on the organization's ethical standing.
Media Maelstrom: The scandal has dominated headlines, igniting public outrage and fuelling calls for justice. The relentless media spotlight keeps the pressure on, ensuring that the Post Office remains under constant scrutiny until true and lasting amends are made. Every new revelation of bonus payouts for investigators while sub-postmasters languished in jail further erodes public confidence.
Reputational Repair: A Herculean Task: Regaining the trust of customers, employees, and the wider community will be a long and arduous journey. The damage inflicted on the Post Office's brand is immense, and the scars run deep. Rebuilding trust requires not just lip service, but concrete actions like implementing robust safeguards against future software failures, establishing a culture of open communication, and demonstrating genuine empathy for the victims of this colossal injustice.
Can trust be rebuilt? The question of whether the Post Office can ever fully recover from this crisis is doubtful. The apologies and financial compensation, while necessary, can never truly replace the years stolen, the families torn apart, and the lives shattered. The loss of trust, once broken, will be significantly difficult to mend. The road to redemption will be long and winding, paved with ‘sincere apologies’, unwavering commitment to justice, and a relentless pursuit of ethical business practices. Only time will tell if the Post Office can emerge from the ashes of this scandal, stronger and more accountable, or whether the damage inflicted will forever tarnish its once-proud legacy.
It's crucial to remember that the victims of this scandal are real people, whose lives were upended by a faulty software system and a culture of negligence, in a partnership between two profit-centred organisations. Their stories must be heard, their pain acknowledged, and their resilience celebrated. Only then can the Post Office begin to rebuild the trust it so carelessly shattered.
Every executive bonus from the scandal era feels like a fresh wound. Every unaddressed question, every lingering ambiguity, adds another layer of frost to any fragile trust that remains.
Sub postmasters weren't just wrongly accused; they were ostracised, bankrupted, and even jailed. Their lives became cautionary tales, living testaments to the Post Office's institutional failing. To rebuild trust, the Post Office wouldn't just need to mend fences; it will need to rebuild the entire house from the ground up, brick by painstaking brick, starting with the way it remunerates sub-postmasters, many of whom say running an outlet isn’t worth the hassle. At least CEO Nick Read has spent time with MPs and victims listening to first hand accounts.
The Post Office may not be facing extinction, but it faces a different kind of death – possible death by a thousand cuts as sub-postmasters step away across the country, eroding its reach, income and capabilities at the heart of needy communities.
The Public Private Conundrum
But the Horizon scandal isn't an isolated incident. It raises unsettling parallels with other publicly owned entities privatised in the name of efficiency and profit. From water companies embroiled in leaks, pollution, and exorbitant executive pay, to rail networks plagued by delays and safety concerns, a pattern emerges. Critics argue that prioritising shareholder returns over essential services breeds a culture of neglect and corner-cutting, leaving communities vulnerable and trust eroded.
The Post Office's challenge, then, extends beyond internal reform. It asks a broader question: can privatised essential services ever truly reconcile profit motives with the ethical obligation to serve the public good? Can trust be rebuilt not just in the Post Office, but in the very model of private ownership for vital infrastructure? Only time will tell if the public outcry spurred by the Horizon scandal will lead to a wider reckoning with this systemic vulnerability.
Up until appearing at a Commons Business Committee, Fujitsu had been characteristically mute on the topic publicly, as is so often the corporate way, instead of getting out in front of the story with its narrative as a post office supplier of a faulty system, and in its part in helping to prosecute the post office employees. Paul Patterson, the company’s European boss said in January he was ‘truly sorry’ and the firm had a ‘moral obligation’ to contribute to a compensation scheme. When pressed, it emerged only 3 people had been fully paid out from the convicted cohort of postmasters at the time.
It is something the next government ought to seek to grapple with following 2024’s election, while the Post Office faces the reckoning that its reputation is unlikely ever to recover from this two-decades long scandal.
Dave Mason, crisis and reputation management consultant
In line with Mentor’s alignment with CIPR codes of ethical practice, this article was configured with assistance from AI large language tools.