Post Office inquiry: So, is Paula Vennells lying or not?

When former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells began her much-anticipated evidence to the public inquiry into the scandal that unfolded on her watch, she turned to the victims and said how grateful she was to be able to apologise to them in person.

There is little doubt those victims would have wondered why she waited so long, when she could have addressed them personally at any time over the last 15 years, since Computer Weekly first exposed the problems with the controversial Horizon IT system.

Of course, like almost every other Post Office executive at the inquiry, she apologised for what happened to the victims, not for what she or the Post Office or anyone else did to cause that to happen.

Vennells’ appearance at the inquiry is the first time she has publicly addressed the issues at the heart of the scandal, beyond a 2015 parliamentary select committee meeting where her response to MPs’ questions was widely criticised – and subsequently mocked in the ITV drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office. Frankly, her refusal to comment to this point is a disgraceful snub to the victims of the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history.

Computer Weekly watched the first day of her inquiry session with a group of subpostmasters, gathered by our friends at Sky News in Fenny Compton village hall, the spiritual home of the victims – the place where campaigner Alan Bates first convened the meeting that showed them all they were not, as the Post Office had told each and every one of them, the only person having problems with Horizon.

That audience was, despite everything, willing to give Vennells the benefit of the doubt, if she told the truth. By the end of the day, there was anger around the room. Victims scoffed at the repeated gaps in her memory – and the apparently detailed recall of undocumented conversations that seemed to alleviate blame. They were entirely cynical about what they labelled her “crocodile tears”.

After Vennells said, not for the first time, that she had perhaps been “too trusting” of the executives around her, one subpostmaster said simply, “Then why couldn’t you trust us?”

So, is Paula Vennells a liar? The victims believe she is. But what should we make of Paula Vennells’ testimony? Watching her was a strange experience, and from the perspective of this observer, one adjective best described her performance: controlled.

She appears to have been thoroughly coached by her legal advisers – as have many of the former Post Office executives at the inquiry. The moments she broke down, stifling tears, came when asked questions for which there was no easy nor obvious answer. In short, the times when she was no longer in control.

Her responses to the forensic and insightful questioning by barrister Jason Beer KC comes across less as someone not telling the truth – more as someone trying to fit an increasingly uncomfortable truth into her worldview.

Despite significant evidence that she was told about bugs in Horizon, and about the possibility for remote access to branch accounts, and about the potential for numerous miscarriages of justice – her justifications came across as if she was trying to fit those facts into the mindset of a CEO driven by protecting the public reputation of the Post Office and its media image.

Previous witnesses have talked about the need to “tell Paula” as further elements of the scandal were exposed. The claims that she was not told, or that she did not see, just do not hold up – and at best reveal her as startlingly uncurious. But they do support a picture of a CEO struggling to stay in control of a predetermined view of the world in which the Post Office, and by implication herself, could not and would not do wrong.

Joining up the clear dots that pointed to the scale of the unfolding scandal simply did not fit with the control required to perpetuate that worldview.

As Post Office CFO Alisdair Cameron told the inquiry, Vennells did not at any stage believe there had been a miscarriage of justice, and “could not have got there emotionally”. It did not fit, and could not fit, with what she believed.

You can only see what you choose to look at, and Paula Vennells was wearing Post Office branded blinkers.

Read more: Post Office Horizon scandal explained: Everything you need to know

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