As a piece of theatre, the Post Office scandal has never failed to deliver on what Aristotle referred to as the audience’s “dramatic expectations”.

For the father of poetic theory, tragedies depict people who are better than we are, while comedies represent those who are worse.

This week the scandal reaches its denouement, with the appearance at the public inquiry of Paula Vennells, the former chief executive of the Post Office, upon whose watch more than 1,100 postmasters were wrongly accused of theft and false accounting.

Despite being informed years earlier about potential issues with the organisation’s Horizon IT system, Ms Vennells chose to contest the postmasters in court.

The Herald: More than 900 employees were prosecutedMore than 900 employees were prosecuted (Image: free)

As a result, more than 900 employees were, over 15 years, prosecuted. Of those, 96 have had wrongful convictions overturned, with more to follow; many others had their lives ruined by bankruptcy and public disgrace. The scandal has so far cost UK taxpayers well over £1bn.

Every tragedy has its anti-hero and the postmasters – and millions of people in this country who are emotionally invested in this story – believe it to be her.

As she takes her seat in Aldwych House in London for the first time today, they will want to know if Ms Vennells is, in Aristotelian terms, noble but flawed or just plain flawed. Tragically, they are likely to be disappointed.

As well as being a successful businesswoman, Ms Vennells is a committed Christian and it appears she applied the same unquestioning faith in herself and her role as chief executive that she derived from her position as an ordained Anglican priest.

In addition to regularly delivering sermons at her local parish church in Bromham, Bedfordshire, Ms Vennells was a confidante of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who reportedly supported her unsuccessful bid to become the Bishop of London in 2017.

She was also a trustee of the religious publisher Hymns Ancient and Modern, a charity from which she took £60,000 in pay over the near decade of her involvement.

She often moralised about her leadership principles during her tenure at the helm of the Post Office, between 2012 and 2019.

In 2016, as the keynote speaker at a Faith in Business forum, she invoked the wisdom of King Solomon to describe her approach to her £4.5 million-a-year role.

“Now, Lord my God … give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong … in administering justice,” she said.

At a panel discussion about business ethics at Canary Wharf in May 2018 – as the crisis unfolded – she continued to express her pride in the Post Office, calling it "a really special organisation in terms of its values" which, she said, stemmed "from the glory of God".

Addressing the issue of making mistakes, she told audience members: "When we mess up, which we do every day, my faith tells me that I can be forgiven, that shortfalls are a perfectly human thing to do, and that I can always start again; always, always, always, start again. You can put things right.”


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She added: “For me, I found that very liberating because… you can get it wrong and you can move on."

Anyone looking for an admission of culpability in Ms Vennells's evidence to the inquiry – or a smoking gun piece of evidence showing she knew the Horizon system didn't work – is likely to be missing the point.

The issue at the heart of the scandal is not whether she knew or didn't know the IT system was flawed, but that she didn't want to know because she couldn't countenance the possibility that she could be wrong.

It appears that, for Ms Vennells, the same unshakeable conviction that informed her belief in the existence of God applied to her work as the leader of the Post Office. Anyone who queried her decisions was not questioning her judgment or ability but her faith.

All religions are sustained by the same circular, impenetrable logic that transcends probability and the emergence of contrary evidence that allows them to assimilate, adapt and move on.

Christianity has survived the Enlightenment, the Reformation and Counter-reformation, Darwinism, and the emergence and development of physics, biology, geology, astronomy, meteorology, anthropology, linguistics, palaeontology, and archaeology, all of which contradict the stories of the bible.

The starting point for a chief executive in Ms Vennells's position should have been to question why the Post Office, which had previously employed few, if any, fraudulent postmasters, suddenly appeared to have them crawling out of the walls.

Did she not wonder whether the sudden surge in apparent criminality within the organisation might have had some connection with the installation of a new IT system.

If nothing else, why didn’t she question the organisation’s recruitment practices that appeared to have an unusually high predilection for selecting wrong'uns.

The Herald: The TV drama Mr Bates vs The Post OfficeThe TV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office (Image: free)

The answer to all of these questions is likely to be as unsatisfying as it is baffling: that for one of the country’s most senior and feted business figures, Ms Vennells appears to have had an astonishing lack of curiosity.

In place of inquiry, investigation, the testing of evidence and the burden of proof, Ms Vennells's chose instead to rely on blind faith in herself and on a system that was patently broken.

The expectation of all those whose lives have been blighted by the scandal is that those responsible will be held accountable. The end of the public inquiry will allow the police to begin their investigations into potential criminality. Whether Ms Vennells's role is shown to be criminal or just negligent, remains to be seen.

Since the scandal broke, the former chief executive has continued to seek comfort from her Christian faith. The only recent sighting of her was captured by a news cameraman, who filmed her cycling away from a church graveyard, offering no comments.

There is a sense of tragedy in the image of this beleaguered 65-year-old woman with her head down, scuttling away from a cemetery on her bike. Aristotle would, I think, struggle to argue that she is in any way better than the hundreds of people whose lives were ruined by the decisions she made.