Spinning tops
Post Office, Issue 1623
HAIL TO THE CHIEF: Tim Parker was among those who fawned over Paula Vennells when her CBE was announced
THE extent to which image and public relations dictated the Post Office's approach to its sub-postmasters is revealed in a fawning email, seen by the Eye, from former chief executive Paula Vennells to her then communications director, Mark Davies.

It followed the announcement of her CBE in the 2019 new year honours – by when it was clear a major miscarriage of justice scandal was brewing, and senior Post Office figures knew how badly sub-postmasters were being treated. (The litigation launched by Alan Bates had already produced one high court judgment finding that the Post Office was "simply attempting to restrict evidence for public relations purposes".)

As the honours were unveiled on 28 December 2018, Vennells wrote gushingly to Davies, who had vehemently defended the Horizon IT system when BBC's Panorama picked up on it in 2015, with legal threats and complaints to BBC bosses.

Imperfect storm
"I wanted to thank you personally for your huge contribution towards this honour," Vennells wrote. "I have lost count of the number of times I have relied on your judgement, listened to your wisdom and then taken your advice over the last few years. Your call was always the right one: guiding us through stormy waters of all kinds. I count myself very fortunate to have worked with you!"

Those waters grew even stormier as the Post Office continued to deny Horizon was flawed when it knew it was.

But, as other emails reveal, colleagues weren't deterred from fawning over the newly gonged Vennells. The then chairman Tim Parker testified how Paula "cares deeply about the business, its people and its customers".

Among the early cheerleaders was Tom Cooper, Post Office non-executive director representing the government, ie taxpayers, as the sole shareholder. "Paula thoroughly deserves the recognition," he told Davies, reflecting her success in turning financial results around, whatever the consequences for sub-postmasters.

Then came Carla Stent, chair of the Post Office audit, risk and compliance committee that ought to have smelt a rat long before and been concerned about the existential "risk" Vennells was creating. "Congratulations Paula – truly well deserved!" she wrote.

No less delighted was the legal director during the Post Office's obstructive and misleading handling of the Bates litigation, Jane MacLeod: "Congratulations – this is a wonderful and deserved recognition of your achievements in leading Post Office over the last 8 years. Enjoy the accolades!"

Angela's blushes
Plenty of other brown-nosers, some apparently quite senior, had their names redacted. One was even commended for her arse-licking by Angela van den Bogerd, the business improvement director who would later be labelled untrustworthy by a judge and who had a torrid time at the inquiry last month.

After the official had emailed "truly inspirational woman" Vennells, van den Bogerd wrote: "Taking the initiative to send a note to Paula is a clear indicator of just how much she has grown in recent years."

Lone dissenter
Despite the cult-like sycophancy and group-think, the papers did contain one dissenting (and highly prescient) note – from someone outside the organisation.

"I am a constant critic of yours in many respects but your total lack of effort in trying to personally understand and investigate the most alarming issues you face is the most serious one," wrote the anonymised author (who might wish to contact the Eye).

"If you had listened to your critics in the first place perhaps you would have had a chance to retain your CBE... [but] if you go on to actually accept the award then you will ultimately have to embarrass the Queen and probably more importantly your family when it is taken away from you or you feel humbled enough to return it... Ms Vennells, it is totally inappropriate that you consider yourself worthy of this award and I respectfully suggest you take the opportunity to decline it while you still have time."

Comfort blanket
The Post Office response was, as ever, to gauge the PR fallout from such sentiments.

Vennells' guru Davies said he had been "monitoring sentiment before, during and after the [first Bates] trial, using YouGov omnibus". The "media coverage has had no discernible impact on sentiment... I expect this is of limited comfort in light of the [redacted] email, but he is really representing a very small minority".

Not now he isn't!

Vennells appears before the inquiry later this month. Davies will be questioned next week. No doubt they have their PR strategy primed and ready to go.

More top stories in the latest issue:

Three days before the Tees Valley mayoral election, workers doing publicly funded regeneration work were asked to down tools to help a political stunt.

As England's regional mayors jostle for central government funds, new West Midlands mayor Richard Parker has ensured Labour chiefs are in his corner.

The local election results were bad news for a subversive social media campaign that had sought to affect the London mayoral election.

Trade secretary Kemi Badenoch has declared free "strategic advice and training" worth £5,000 – but nothing to do with a leadership run, of course…

The UK government's cosy relations with Israel's leading arms firm may explain why David Cameron is resisting calls to suspend arms sales to Israel.

Southern Water's crumbling infrastructure has caused Hastings residents problems yet again, with days without drinking water or flushing toilets.

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Private Eye Issue 1622