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Some wrongly accused British postal workers begin to see justice after TV drama airs

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For several years in the early 2000s, a piece of faulty accounting software inside local British postal centers set up the people running those centers for ruin. The postal professionals, often at the heart of their communities, were accused of fraud, stripped of their livelihoods, frequently forced into bankruptcy and sometimes sent to jail. Well, over the past week, an emotionally affecting TV drama focused on this saga has helped accelerate a national reckoning over the mistreatment of hundreds of workers, as Willem Marx reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. BATES VS. THE POST OFFICE")

TOBY JONES: (As Alan Bates) The computer system post office spent an arm and a leg on is faulty.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No one else has ever reported any problems with Horizon - no one.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: "Mr. Bates Vs. The Post Office" tells the story of a persistent former subpostmaster, played by the actor Toby Young (ph), who felt his firing from a job he loved was unfair and launched a campaign to confront his former employer alongside others in similar situations.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. BATES VS. THE POST OFFICE")

JONES: (As Alan Bates) We are fighting a war against an enemy owned by the British government while we are just skint little people.

MARX: Little about this story was new. In fact, it followed years of persistent pressure from individual postal workers, lesser-known lawmakers and muckraking journalists to bring the facts to light. But the human suffering portrayed in the show has ignited a sense of fiery national outrage that the government is now racing to extinguish after years of long legal delays and official inaction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: Mr. Speaker, this is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation's history. People who worked hard to serve their communities have their lives and their reputations destroyed through absolutely no fault of their own.

MARX: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, for the first time Wednesday, promised parliament fresh legislation that would help overturn the convictions of hundreds of former postal workers who'd been wrongly accused of fraud. The U.K. government has already paid out more than $180 million to around 2,500 individuals caught up in decades of prosecutions. But hundreds more have waited years for their convictions to be overturned - something that's, until now, been required for them to receive compensation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUNAK: We will make sure that the truth comes to light, we right the wrongs of the past and the victims get the justice they deserve.

MARX: This week, Paula Vennells, the former British Post Office chief executive for much of the period under scrutiny, has said she'll return a national honor, known as a CBE.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. BATES VS. THE POST OFFICE")

LIA WILLIAMS: (As Paula Vennells) This is about the reputation of the post office.

JULIE HESMONDHALGH: (As Suzanne Sercombe) It's not. It's about people's lives, you moron.

MARX: This extraordinary episode has shown the power of a single television program to level the polarized political landscape of modern Britain. An almost unique set of circumstances that's seen many of those often in opposition to one another unite in a common purpose centered on a much-loved institution that had in recent years become a byword for bureaucratic incompetence and even malice.

For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "TIMID, INTIMIDATING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Willem Marx