14 Feb 2024

Mr Bates vs The Post Office: A small victory for the little guy, and the trade press too

ITV’s retelling of the Post Office scandal had audiences gripped last month. The resulting public outcry as viewers were aghast at the injustices they saw unfolding on screen forced the prime minister to announce emergency legislation on criminal convictions and victim compensations.

Much has been said of the role of the B2B trade press in uncovering the story. Namely, B2B trade title Computer Weekly played a crucial role in reporting on the story before it was picked up by national press.

In its 2022 write-up of the work of Rebecca Thomson, who first reported on the story in 2009, The Times described Thomson as a then 26-year-old reporter at “a niche computer magazine.” Tell that to any B2B Tech PR specialist and they’ll tell you just how wrong you are.

Thomson left Computer Weekly just a year later, but carried on reporting on the story elsewhere. At Computer Weekly, reporter Karl Flinders took over. Speaking to the Guardian last month, Flinders said that he estimates he has written about 350 articles on the campaign led by Alan Bates.

Flinders admits himself that the lack of hard evidence made the story a difficult sell to editors.

Computer Weekly investigations editor Bill Goodwin wrote on Linkedin shortly after the airing of the series that they had persisted through “bullying letters” from the Post Office demanding to know their sources but said: “We ignored them. Reaction was muted when the story first appeared but it initiated a slow-burn chain of events that lead to the uncovering of a scandal of enormous proportions.”

Eventually, Flinders’ perseverance and investigative work led to the discovery of an internal email that acknowledged the existence of a system error. Undoubtedly, without Computer Weekly’s investigative work, campaigning and reporting, justice may not be the possibility that it now hints it might be. At the very least we’d have had less to watch in January.

I’ll swap you three trade hits for a national

People on both sides of the industry will have noticed the continued flurry of closures of titles, or the many cases where others have been acquired and some have been merged. In recent months, Alt-Fi and Design Week announced their closures. Last year, Channel Pro and Cloud Pro were stand-alone sites but now both sit on the IT Pro website. Looking back a few years earlier and many PRs still have fond memories of IT Pro Portal and its liberal approach to commissioning guest articles.

As PRs, we’ve all been there. A client strives to be in the nationals and in many ways this is understandable, their large audiences can be dazzling in monthly reports and turn a dry January into a successful one. Some clients will even turn their noses up at trade publications that may not draw in the numbers they once did.

But PR is a lot more than how many thousands of eyeballs potentially click on a story in which your key spokesperson might be giving their view. Despite a national newspaper’s larger audience, sometimes a smaller group of the right readers that actually value your insights is better than the promise that a few million readers may scroll past the article.

And communicating the value of a publication that might draw less clicks than the rest is a key skill in the job. If nationals were trading cards they’d be shiny and protected by plastic but elusive, unreliable and if you wanted to try and buy one, they’d be eye-wateringly expensive.

ITV 1-0 Netflix

When you factor in Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus and Apple TV, Mr Bates vs The Post Office is very unlikely to turn out to be the most watched show of the year, or even of January 2024, but its impact was undeniable. Last year’s most watched show on Netflix, The Night Agent, was watched by approximately 99 million viewers but is yet to be discussed in parliament or lead to any changes in legislation at the time of writing.

The reporting by Computer Weekly no doubt highlights the value of the trade press and should be championed. That’s not to say that every story will warrant a four-part series on prime-time television, but some stories are far more impactful when covered by specialist reporters in trade titles that know their audience.