The stuff of nightmares

Andrew Tickell’s column in this week’s Sunday National is largely given over to the gut-wrenching testimony of those affected by the Post Office ‘Horizon’ scandal. Hundreds of lives wrecked in the name of corporate greed and arrogance. Thousands if we count the families of those falsely accused of dishonesty because the Post Office management was unable to contemplate the possibility that they’d made a mistake by investing total faith in technology rather than putting a little trust in their people. Eventually, that mistake and its implications became so huge that senior managers couldn’t admit to it even if they knew As a result, around 700 people were left financially ruined and emotionally and psychologically damaged.

The most horrifying aspect of this whole affair; the thing that is in a very real sense the stuff of nightmares, is the powerlessness of the victims. They knew they had done nothing wrong. But faced with the oppressive might of a huge corporation and its unaccountable managers they were forced to confess to crimes that hadn’t even been committed. On the basis of the testimony recounted by Andrew Tickell the Post Office is guilty of what must be one of the worst cases of serial corporate bullying on record. It is hard to see how inquiry chairman Sir Wyn Williams can come to any other conclusion.

The sane mind recoils at the thought of what these people were put through by fellow human beings who would doubtless plead that they were only following orders. Perhaps they too were victims. Perhaps they were also bullied into behaving as they did. It may be more palatable to believe this than that they were simply drunk on the power afforded them by their corporate masters. Perhaps they too were powerless against the relentless, merciless grinding of the corporate machine.

We all know this powerlessness from our nightmares. Most, if not all of our worst nightmares involve being powerless to prevent harm to ourselves or those close to us. It is the hopelessness which lends those situations their nightmare quality more than whatever horrors are being inflicted. It is not so much what is happening that is nightmarish as our inability to prevent it. The absence of control. Being devoid of agency. That is the stuff of nightmares. And that is what the victims of the ‘Horizon’ scandal were subjected to.

Most of us are powerless most of the time. What haunts our nightmares is a distillation of the powerlessness we all experience in our waking lives. Perhaps it is this imagined concentration of powerlessness which makes the powerlessness of our reality relatively tolerable. For the victims of the Post Office’s ‘Horizon’ scandal that extreme became their waking reality.

The danger is that this will be represented as are other gross failures of ‘the system’, as a one-off freak occurrence. The truth is that these failures are happening all the time. For the most part, these failures result in no more experienced powerlessness than we have become inured to. But the fact that we are on consciously aware of it doesn’t mean it isn’t doing damage. The experience of being powerless is toxic even when it is insidious. It is doing damage even if we don’t immediately notice it. Its effects are corrosive.

More precisely, it is the stress caused by powerlessness which has an adverse effect on the well-being of both the individual and society. Stress is not caused by the pressure of responsibility alone. What induces stress is responsibility without authority. When we are held accountable despite having no control, stress is the inevitable result. It is not the burden of responsibility that is crippling. It is being simultaneously burdened with responsibility and denied or deprived of the means to cope.

What was done to the victims of the ‘Horizon’ scandal was inhuman. Truly inhuman. It is in no way to diminish that gross injustice to recognise that is an extreme instance of an injustice that is done to most of us every day of our lives. It is the inhumanity inherent in the way our society is organised writ too large to be ignored. It is the stuff of nightmares brought to life.



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2 thoughts on “The stuff of nightmares

  1. .. and remember, the Post Office was and still is tax-payer owned; it was not privatised with the rest of Royal Mail. So what’s been done to these Postmasters has been done to them by the British state (isn’t it great to be British?).

    There was strong evidence for a long time (I know, I was a Postmaster) that there was something deeply wrong with Horizon, and also deeply wrong with the PO’s relationship with Postmasters. They were the small fry who didn’t count. It was cheaper for the PO to hold Postmasters accountable for ‘losses’ than investigate and fix the problems with Horizon that caused them.

    There was another problem too. The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters was the trade union for Postmasters, but useless. It was subsidised by the PO through various back-door deals (so effectively, in the PO’s pocket) , and actually took the PO’s side when problems with Horizon first became public. The fact that its General Secretary was a Scot, and someone I helped vote into position at a salary (then) greater than the Prime Minister’s, will shame me until my dying day.

    I haven’t read Tickell’s article because I no longer read The National. I know it has some good stuff, but starting with the notorious two (or was it three?) page article supporting the Growth Commission currency proposals, it’s gradually become clear that at heart it’s an SNP propaganda news sheet, somewhat disguised around the edges admittedly, but at core a Sturgeon/SNP fanzine.

    Still, well said Andrew Tickell, for whatever it was he said (!), and The Sunday National for publishing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Didn’t this all begin while Labour were in power?
    And then it went on thru the Cameron-Clegg years.
    Yet even at the beginning, questions were being asked. Concerns were being raised, and we had more than a few news stories on this scandal.
    And yet, none of those politicians in power did a single thing to deal with it.
    They did absolutely nothing!
    And so all these poor folks were victimized, and had their entire lives destroyed.
    This could have been stopped early on.
    The fact it wasn’t, is just as much a disgrace and condemnation on the politicians as much as for the Post Office bosses, in my view.

    Liked by 1 person

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