Comms director at centre of cover-up never thought Post Office were the ‘baddies’

Head of communications at the Post Office painted a rosy picture of the error-prone Horizon system when challenged

A communications director central to the Post Office’s strategy to keep software problems out of public said that he and others believed they were doing the right thing.

Mark Davies, former group communications and corporate affairs director at Post Office, and the public relations team played a role in obstructing journalists investigating allegations made by subpostmasters against the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system used in branches.

Subpostmasters were blamed and punished for unexplained accounting shortfalls, with hundreds wrongly convicted of financial crimes based on evidence from the system. Many were jailed and many more had their lived destroyed. 

Davies was the latest former Post Office executive to be questioned in the most recent Post Office Horizon scandal public inquiry hearing. The former communications director was asked by inquiry barrister Julian Blake whether he and others in his team had ever asked themselves, “Might we be the baddies?”. Davies said many times: “We really believed we were doing the right things.”

But evidence shown in the inquiry revealed that in 2013, following news that former subpostmaster Martin Griffith was critically ill in hospital after attempting to take his own life, one of the first things Davies did was to tell the Post Office’s general counsel of the need to find a specialist media lawyer. At the time, Griffiths was being forced to repay unexplained account shortfalls on the Horizon system and was losing his Post Office branch. Griffiths died in hospital weeks later.

Davies wrote in an email immediately following news of Griffith’s hospitalisation: “Given the potential media element please can we line up a specialist media lawyer in case we need urgent advice this evening.”

Davies told the inquiry: “This was a really deeply and tragic and terrible case and everybody at the Post Office was deeply, deeply shocked when we read the email.” He said that his role meant that he had a responsibility to make sure they had someone with the right legal expertise on hand to advise on the matter.

The public inquiry also heard that Davies praised controversial former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells and senior executive Angela van den Bogerd in his witness statement. Blake put to Davies that he was “painting a picture of a communications team and senior leadership team that was committed to opening up to challenge [over Horizon]” in his witness statement. Davies said this was a fair description.

But Blake challenged Davies on the Post Office’s lack of openness with journalists and its claim that all subpostmaster shortfalls were caused by the subpostmasters and not Horizon errors. Blake said: “What we have seen here from 2013 onwards is, year after year, the same mantra. As director of communications, were you responsible for pursuing that mantra?”

“Not at all,” Davies replied, claiming that the Post Office had been open with journalists.

Evidence in the hearing revealed that Davies played a role in devising Post Office strategy beyond communications. Following publication of an interim report on the Horizon system in June 2013, carried out by independent forensic accountants Second Sight, which revealed serious concerns with the Horizon system, Davies was tasked by the board to create a response.

Blake said Davies was doing more than drafting press releases, devising “an entire strategy for the company to take forward in response to the Second Sight interim report”. Davies denied this and said that the press release and the Post Office’s position were the same thing.

Davies defended Horizon against claims made against it, even by the forensic investigators the Post Office contracted to examine it. Following the publication of Second Sight’s final report in April 2015, which said the Post Office had prosecuted people for theft and false accounting before investigating the cause of unexplained account shortfalls, Davies wrote a letter in the Post Office Subspaceonline magazine. In it, he informed subpostmasters of the organisation’s belief that much of the media reporting of the alleged problems with its Horizon accounting system had been blown up to present an alarming picture that did not reflect reality.

He wrote: “Much of the reporting is designed, as reporting often is, to present a picture which appears alarming: it does not however reflect the reality of the situation, which is some way from that you may read about or see on the TV.”

Davies also wrote the Second Sight report did not support its claims with facts. “Unfortunately, the forensic accountants have also repeated allegations which are not supported by the facts. We cannot of course support their findings on these points – and you would not expect us to do otherwise.”

One email shown to the inquiry revealed that Davies told Post Office CEO Paula Vennells that he believed Second Sight were “colluding with” the campaigning subpostmasters of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), “rather than acting as independent players”. In the email, he said: “There is a campaigning coalition against us and [Second Sight] are part of it.”  

Davies admitted this did highlight a concern that Post Office had over Second Sight’s independence.

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to accounting software (see below for timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal, since 2009).

Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story 

Timeline: Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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