How Stories Inspire Action

by | 31 January 2024 | Storytelling

The Setting

South Warnborough is an idyllic village in Hampshire with a busy little shop at its heart. in 2001, kind, bubbly Jo Hamilton took over the shop. It included a Post Office counter, a vital service that many villagers depended on. Little did Jo know that the Post Office’s Horizon till would plunge her into a terrible nightmare.

The Trouble with Horizon

The bugs and errors that plagued Fujitsu’s Horizon accounting system were more than mere technical glitches. One bug froze the screen as its user confirmed cash receipts, silently updating records and creating a £24,000 discrepancy. Another bug spawned duplicate transactions, contributing to a £25,000 discrepancy.

Jo was bewildered by the discrepancies she was seeing. Yet when she phoned the Post Office’s helpline, they told her two things: you are the only one we are hearing this from, and you must have stolen the money. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, she tried to make up the difference by putting her own money in. She even remortgaged her house. The Post Office still sacked her, charged her with theft and demanded she repay £30,000.

The Post Office accused subpostmasters up and down the country of theft and false accounting. These false accusations had tragic consequences. People’s reputations were trashed and their health ruined. One desperate man committed suicide.

The Story Finally Makes the Front Pages

Subpostmasters began to make contact with one another in 2009, and over the next ten years, a quest for justice gathered steam. Campaigners and sympathetic journalists fought hard to bring the case to wide attention, but by and large, the public remained unaware or indifferent.

Fast forward to January 2024. The story of Jo Hamilton and her fellow subpostmasters unfolded over four days in a gripping ITV drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Over 10 million viewers tuned in. The British public was scandalised. There was a national outcry. A million people signed a petition calling for justice. The Post Office’s former chief executive handed back her CBE, and the British government announced a new law to exonerate and compensate victims.

The Power of a Good Story

So, what turned the tide for the Horizon scandal? Simple: ITV told a brilliant story that transformed a legal dispute over accounting issues into a heartbreaking tale of a village shopkeeper on the brink of ruin.

Here are some of the ways ITV’s storytelling made the facts resonate:

  • By humanising the issue:
    The focus of the story was not on the technicalities of the Horizon issues, but on how these issues affected people. Rather than deal in abstractions like injustice or remote access, it gave events a human shape. It was relatable. Viewers could project themselves into the story.
  • By shaping events into a compelling arc:
    The story took a complicated series of events across a broad span in time and space and arranged them into a structure. As the focus of the story moved around, it alternated moments of high drama with calmer intervals, urban locations with rural locations, exterior scenes with interiors, group scenes with two-handers. This rhythmic variety kept viewers gripped.
  • By engaging our emotions:
    The narrative didn’t just detail technical glitches; it explored the harrowing emotional toll on the subpostmasters. Jo Hamilton (memorably portrayed by Monica Dolan) was an everywoman we could all relate to. We felt her anguish, her stress and her anger. When she suffered, so did we.

ITV’s presentation of the Horizon scandal teaches us a vital lesson about communication. Facts might create understanding, but stories inspire action. So many of us now long for Jo Hamilton to be exonerated, Fujitsu to be exposed and the Post Office punished. Yes, we all want legal justice. But what we crave even more is a happy ending to the story. We want kind, bubbly Jo Hamilton back behind the counter of her village shop in idyllic South Warnborough.


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