Post office feature

Second class delivery: Mr Brand vs the former Post Office Minister

It’s easy to feel deep, genuine anger at the revelations of the Post Office scandal which has come to the fore of the news agenda in recent days.

Between 1999 and 2015, over 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted for theft, false accounting and fraud when shortfalls at their branches were actually due to errors in the Post Office’s ‘Horizon’ accounting software.

It’s a story of false accusations, cover-ups and downright deceit, which led to hundreds of lives being ruined, in the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

But from a communications perspective, the lessons to be learnt are more complicated.

Untangling precisely who knew what and when over that decade and a half – especially with changing roles, responsibilities and governments – means that an analysis of what should have been communicated at any stage in the proceedings is necessarily nuanced.

This was exemplified in an ITV interview last week between journalist Paul Brand and former Postal Affairs Minister Ed Davey (now the leader of the Liberal Democrats).


Post office

Sir Ed was Postal Minister between 2010 and 2012 during the coalition government, and in his conversation with Brand, refused to apologise over his position in the Post Office scandal, despite being asked more than ten times to do so:

Here’s the transcript:

PB: “Why not draw a line under it and just apologise – can you apologise to sub postmasters?”

ED: “Of course, I regret…”

PB: “That’s not an apology…”

ED: “Well… I, I said ‘of course’, I think it really is…”

PB: “Well, why don’t you say ‘I am sorry’?”

ED: “Well, I’ve said time and time again that I deeply regret…”

PB: “That’s not ‘I am sorry’.”

ED: “…that I was… that I was… that I was lied to…”

PB: “That’s not an apology, Sir Ed.”

ED: “…I was lied to on an industrial scale, and of course, I’m sure every other Post Office Minister who was lied to… er… regrets that they were part of this huge conspiracy that the Post Office perpetrated…”

PB: “Hmmm… why can’t you say ‘sorry’?”

ED: “Well, of course, I, I feel that I’m right to express regret for not getting to the bottom…”

PB: “Why can’t you say sorry? It’s the least they deserve. Look what they’ve been through. Just say ‘sorry’ for your part in not having got to the answers.”

ED: “My heart goes out to the hundreds of people…”

PB: “Not enough to say ‘sorry’…?”

ED: “… who were here tonight. I deeply regret that we didn’t get to the bottom of the lies that were told. Er… and I deeply regret it took until 2019 and the High Court case until people got the truth. And what we absolutely need to focus on now, is getting that compensation quickly. When you listen to the sub-postmasters, that’s what they want – they want to make sure that compensation is there. And I think of my postmaster who I’m working for – his case was extremely difficult. When we worked with his lawyers, we were told that because he pleaded guilty, there was no chance – so we need to get the action to help people like him…”

PB: “Hmmm – one last chance to say ‘sorry’?”

ED: “Of, of course, I regret what happened…”

PB: “No… no apology?”

ED: “… I’m sure the judges and I’m sure all the Post Office Ministers deeply regret. And I hope the enquiry can get to the bottom for those people…”

PB: “Those postmasters don’t get an apology? They don’t deserve that apology?”

ED: “Well, the postmasters deserve a huge amount – they deserve compensation…”

PB: “But not an apology?”

ED: “They deserve a huge apology from the Post Office…”

PB: “But not from you?”

ED: “… from, from Fujitsu, from all the people who led this conspiracy of lies against them, and frankly the whole British public.”

PB: “Alright – Sir Ed Davey, thank you very much.”

ED: “Thank you.”

In a post on ‘X’ (formerly Twitter), journalist Michael Crick described it as “a truly dreadful interview” which “will be used by media trainers for ever as a model of what not to do.”

However, to be fair to Davey, it now seems that it was only in 2015 (3 years after he left the role) that the situation became clearer, when a whistleblower who used to work for Fujitsu appeared on the BBC’s Panorama programme, indicating that there was a problem with the Horizon system. And it was from 2015 onwards, on this evidence, that the Post Office prosecution of sub-postmasters stopped.

So, Ed Davey’s lack of an apology and recourse to the words “regret”, “deeply regret” and “my heart goes out to…” indicates how careful he feels he needs to be not to admit culpability. I’ve written about the problem with making public apologies before – back in April 2021 (‘Why sorry is the hardest word’). The message here is the same: unlike a simple expression of regret, an apology would imply Davey was at fault. It’s likely he would have had legal advice suggesting a response along these lines too. As my crisis communications colleague Catherine Cross puts it, he has to “balance the implications for the court of law with the court of public opinion.”

Indeed, in a more recent post, Michael Crick said “And if Davey said that on legal advice… I’d love to know who his lawyers were – partly so I and others can avoid them if we ever get into trouble.”

It’s true, the leader of the Liberal Democrats comes across very badly in this interview. He appears awkward, untrustworthy and evasive. As his PR advisors would tell him, “the optics don’t look good”.

The problem is, the wave of public anger currently breaking on the shore of the news agenda can engulf the reality of just what it was genuinely possible to say at any one moment in the timeline of this story. Including, as we’ve just seen, right up to the present day.

1 reply
  1. Robert Matthews
    Robert Matthews says:

    Must confess I hadn’t seen this exchange, so thanks for that, the transcript and the (customarily) nuanced analysis.
    Just for the record, in this interview Paul Brand fails no fewer than 10 times to get what he wants in response to a direct request to a politician.
    As such, he’s beaten the previous record of 9 failures of direct requests, set by Jeremy Paxman in his celebrated 1997 BBC Newsnight interview with Michael Howard (see here:
    Of course, one could flip this and say that Sir Ed Davey can now claim to be the new record-holder for failing to give a straight answer to a straight question.
    As a media consultant, I would advise Sir Ed against doing so. But as a voter I’d say – go on Ed, put out a press release on it.


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