What Did It Know? When Did It Know It?

What Did It Know? When Did It Know It?

Senator Howard Baker’s question: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” went to the heart of the Watergate scandal. But it was another question, asked almost as an aside, which provided the damning evidence: the question to Alexander Butterfield, a Nixon aide, about what recording devices, in addition to the taped instructions given by Nixon to his secretary, there were in the White House. Those tapes provided the evidence that the conspiracy went right to the top and right from the start.

Something similar seems to be happening now in the Post Office Inquiry with the release of numerous recordings, involving conversations between the external investigators, Second Sight, and the Post Office’s General Counsels, Susan Crichton and, later Chris Aujard. Much of the focus has been on what they show about Paula Vennells’ knowledge of Horizon’s failings and its consequences for subpostmasters, contrary to what she later claimed to a Parliamentary Select Committee. Worse is what they show about the response of the Post Office’s General Counsel, their most senior lawyer and the person who should, if they understand their responsibilities properly, be ensuring the company complies with the law even if this adversely impacts its commercial interests or is deeply embarrassing. 

The latest recording, released by ITV, is worth dissecting. The new GC, Chris Aujard, was told by Second Sight that his organisation may have pressured subpostmasters improperly into pleading guilty to serious criminal offences on the basis of false or non-existent evidence, failed to carry out investigations and misled the court. “It’s that serious.” he is told. 

He responds:

My focus now is on dealing with each case as it comes through. So yeah, the macro, macro issues are another pot. They’re not in my pot. They belong to other parts of the organisation. I can feed through some of the thoughts on this call into that pot.” 


… I will absolutely relay on to the right people.” 

What is this garbage management-speak? He was the chief lawyer. He was one of the “right people“. He had an overriding duty to the court to ensure that it is not misled, whether expressly or by omission, a duty overriding any other duty to his client. If there was – as he was clearly told – the slightest chance of his organisation misleading a court during litigation and/or in criminal prosecutions, he should have been all over this. Not wittering about “pots”, “macro issues” and dumping his responsibilities on others like some latter-day Pontius Pilate. He should have informed the full Board, including the non-executive directors, of what he’d been told and what needed to be done. Did he? If he was either not listened to or told to do nothing or that it was none of his business, he should have resigned and told the legal regulatory authorities, the courts and the government why. Of course, this would have required a sense of professionalism, some ethical sense and courage. Were these qualities more widespread in public and commercial life, our organisations would be in a much better state than they are.

What this vignette (and the other recently released recordings) suggest is a Board lacking the necessary curiosity alerting them to what was happening at the executive level. Or, just as likely, a Board not wanting to know, making that clear and thereby stifling any chance of independent ethical action by managers from the executive level down. And a legal department unwilling or unable to take proper responsibility for the company’s investigations team and the consequent prosecutions.

With all the focus on Vennells, her Chairs, Alice Perkins and Tim Parker and the lawyers, we are in danger of not asking questions of those further up the chain of command: those who held the purse strings, who owned the company – the government – which had a director representing its interests on the Board.

Did the Board fail to act because it did not know or want to know? Or did it cover up because that was what its owner, the government, wanted? Is it plausible that Parker, Vennells and others would have acted as they did – from the statements made to Parliament, the instructions to lawyers in relation to the Bates litigation, the evidence given to the court, the decisions made about what not to reveal, the decision to try and get Mr Justice Fraser off the case, the involvement of a senior retired judge and so on – if they hadn’t been confident that the government had their backs? Was this really just a rogue organisation which misled its owners or kept them in the dark throughout this 20 year period while nonetheless managing to persuade it to provide ever increasing amounts of money to fight the subpostmasters and defend it in Parliament? And, if so, what does that say about the competence, curiosity and integrity of the Business Department and its Ministers over this period?

Or is it possible that the government, that civil servants knew about – and may have been actively involved in or tacitly or explicitly approved of – the cover up of the miscarriages of justice? That is the question which now needs answering. Not avoiding by blaming the whole farrago on Vennells and others, however blameworthy they may be.

Will the Williams Inquiry get to the bottom of this? Unlikely. Unless the executives and lawyers now being held out to dry decide to talk freely. What the Business Department was doing, what it knew, what it approved, what it turned a blind eye to, what civil servants knew, what Ministers were or were not told are not within the Terms of Reference. Unsurprisingly. But we need to know because, bad as this scandal is on the evidence we have seen so far, it would be infinitely worse if it were the government which was in part responsible for the miscarriages of justice and their cover up.

50 years on from Watergate the key question for the government remains: What did it know? When did it know it?   


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