Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Mobs and Yobs: Caught on Camera - preview

At 9pm on Thu 19 Dec, the last episode of this series of Caught on Camera will go out on Channel 5.

It's called "Mobs and Yobs: Caught on Camera" and features footage of a political protest in London which didn't seem to get much coverage on the news at the time.

The above image of Westminster is taken by the heat-sensitive camera on the police helicopter. 

One of our crews was filming in Met Police control on 5 Nov this year when two events, the Anonymous march and the Bonfire of Austerity protest was taking place in central London. 

We also had a crew on the ground to capture the actions of a breakaway group from the Anonymous march who lit a fire and set off fireworks outside Buckingham Palace (hitting it, quite spectacularly, in the process). 

We also have an amazing sequence from the 2011 riots, again in London, featuring a shopkeeper who thought he was going to get killed a the height of the violence.

And finally, as it's Christmas, who doesn't want to see some drunken Santas?
Tonight's episode is the last in the series. Hopefully we'll be back in 2014. 

Happy Christmas!

.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

A big week for BBC Surrey


Every Saturday morning I present a breakfast show on BBC Surrey, my local station. I've made good friends among colleagues and the station's contributors and audience, who use BBC Surrey as the community resource it should be.

Last night many of those friends were in one room at the South Lodge Hotel near Horsham to celebrate some of the outstanding people who dedicate themselves to making the world a better place.

I hosted a table with two nominees, one of whom was a 17 year old called Zoe Giles. Zoe spent two years tackling council bureaucrats who were trying to close her local youth centre down. Thanks to her efforts the centre was eventually given a guaranteed future.
PC Gaynor Grout

The other nominee was PC Gaynor Grout, a woman who has given her entire working life to community policing and appears to be, in the eyes of her colleagues and the people she serves, a very effective police officer.

It was a good evening - catching up with colleagues and hearing some wonderful stories of courage, bravery, kindness and generosity of human spirit.

Some of the same people who were working late into the night last night were up early this morning to attend the formal switch-on of BBC Surrey's first DAB digital transmitter at Epsom Downs racecourse.
l-r Mark Carter, Sara David, Sir Paul Beresford MP

This has been a long time coming. Digital roll-out was hit by the financial crisis, and a significant amount of reorganising was required before it could get going again. For someone who lives in North Surrey, where the FM signal can be very ropey, I am confident DAB will bring many thousands more listeners to BBC Surrey, and it finally means I can get a decent signal in my house!

If you live in Surrey or North East Hampshire, give BBC Surrey a try. The presenting team are particularly strong at the moment and the station seems to have more journalistic ambition than ever.

*****************

Copyright for all photos: BBC Surrey


Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Thieves and Thugs - preview

Thought these might whet your appetite for tonight. Don't forget, Thieves and Thugs: Caught on Camera is on air at 9pm, Channel 5. It usually goes up during the programme on Demand 5. And then of course it's repeated again at 10pm on C5+1. Let me know what you think of it.

A drug deal, from a CCTV operator's perspective.
 The shot below shows what happened when two people took exception to a CCTV camera being erected in their neighbourhood. They're using an angle grinder to cut it down.

The final moments of a CCTV camera
 The still below is the endgame of a long police motorway chase involving a drug courier. The man jettisoned his cocaine en route, but the camera on the police helicopter picked it up and the drugs were recovered.

The mugging below was a particularly nasty one, but thanks to the quality of the CCTV image, two of the muggers were convicted.


And the man below was arrested after a CCTV operator noticed he was walking along holding a knife. The operator tracked the man on camera whilst staying on the radio to guide the police towards him.



There are some really good stories in tonight's episode. I hope you enjoy it.

.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Thieves and Thugs: Caught on Camera


This Wednesday 11 Dec at 9pm, Thieves and Thugs: Caught on Camera (Episode 5) will go out on Channel 5.

I recorded the voiceover last week and I think it's my favourite so far. There is some superb storytelling by the editors, and many of the crimes we feature have ended in convictions. 

There is also a moment which will provoke a very strong reaction if it is kept in the final edit. There isn't much that can be changed after a VO session, but it is so controversial, it may not be deemed suitable for broadcast.

Episode 4 - Car Crime UK: Caught on Camera - went out last week and did very well. Despite being up against I'm a Celebrity… we got our biggest audience of the series by some distance and our highest share. 

On Demand 5 the programme became the second most watched show on the channel. It was kept off the top spot by The Bible. Perhaps trying to beat the Greatest Story Ever Told was always going to be a non-starter.

You can watch all the programmes in the series so far on Demand 5 here.

UPDATE: I'm told the controversial moment in Wednesday's prog is definitely staying. But that's all I'm telling you. You'll know what I'm talking about when you see it.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Car Crime UK: Caught on Camera - tonight

This new programme will be broadcast on Channel 5 at 9pm on Wed 4 Dec, and then repeated on C5+1 at, you guessed it, 10pm.


The theme tonight, as the title suggests, is cars, and we have some astonishing footage (high speed chases and level crossing near-misses) and absorbing stories to tell.

Every week for the next three Wednesdays will have a different theme.

We didn't do any press shots for tonight's episode, so here are some stills from the programme:



Please watch it if you can, and if you can't, please help spread the word by linking to this blog post.

A criminal, helpfully providing evidence.
I'll be tweeting during tonight's programme from 9pm using the usual #caughtoncamera hashtag.


If you want to catch any of the first three episodes of the Caught on Camera strand, you can find them on Demand 5, here.


Monday, 25 November 2013

Car Crime UK: Caught on Camera

Really pleased to let you know the final three episodes of this series of Channel 5's Caught on Camera strand have been brought forward to run in the three weeks leading up to Christmas. Episode 4 will air at 9pm on Wednesday 4 Dec with the title "Car Crime UK: Caught on Camera".

To be slotted into the pre-Christmas schedules at 9pm is a real vote of confidence by the channel. I've seen the final cut of episode 4, and I can promise you there is some seriously thrilling stuff in there.

If you haven't yet seen any of the first three episodes of Criminals: Caught on Camera, they are still available on Demand 5. My favourite is episode 1, everyone else I've spoken to seems to prefer episode 2 and episode 3 got the highest figures. I guess that means there's something for everyone.

Give them a go if you haven't already. It should whet your appetite for 4 Dec!

.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Criminals: Caught on Camera - thanks

Just a quick note to say that's it for Criminals: Caught on Camera until the new year.

A few weeks before the first episode went out the decision was taken to split the series in two, with the first three episodes going out as they did (on 18, 25 Oct and 1 Nov), with the remaining three going out some time in 2014, possibly January.

It was a fascinating experience making Criminals... and the positive response from all quarters has been very encouraging. If you watched, or helped spread the word in any way, I am grateful.

A decision on a second series is unlikely to be made until the second part of the first series has gone out and the viewing data crunched.

In the meantime I am talking to various parties about a number of other exciting projects, and I hope to be able to tell you about the ones that come off soon.

Nick

PS All three initial episodes of Criminals: Caught on Camera are available on the excellent Demand 5 platform and should remain so for some time.


Friday, 25 October 2013

Second Criminals... episode tonight - C5, 8pm

Thoroughly enjoyed doing The Wright Stuff this morning. Now for my third hour on Channel 5 today:

What does this episode focus on, you ask? Here's what the Radio Times says:


If I get out of this voiceover session in good time, I will be home to live tweet it. If you'd like to join the fun, the hashtag is #caughtoncamera.

And don't forget if you miss it at 8pm, it's repeated at 9pm on C5+1. And then it'll be up on Demand 5.

Thanks to everyone who has watched and enjoyed Episode 1. I hope you told your friends and I hope you'll like tonight's episode just as much.

.

Monday, 21 October 2013

And the results are in


Criminals: Caught on Camera went out on Friday night and was Channel 5's highest rated programme of the evening. I had a look at how it was doing on Demand 5 yesterday and noticed it was the channel's second most-watched programme.

I had another look this morning and saw it had moved up to become the most watched programme on Demand 5. Where, at the time of posting, it remains. I don't have to tell you how chuffed I am about this.

I'm scheduled to appear on the Matthew Wright programme on Channel 5 this Friday at 9.15am, ahead of the second episode of Criminals... which goes out at 8pm.

If you want to watch last week's episode, it's all here. I promise you it's a goodie:

http://www.channel5.com/shows/criminals-caught-on-camera/episodes/episode-1-564#comments

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Friday, 18 October 2013

Criminals: Caught on Camera - a reminder


Channel 5, at 8pm tonight. As the Radio Times says, episode 1 "focuses on drunkenness and violence".

The hashtag is #CaughtOnCamera

It really is a very good watch. Please spread the word...

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Criminals: Caught on Camera press listing and shots

Always good to finally see it in the Radio Times.


So that's 8pm on Friday 18 October, neatly sandwiched between World's Strongest Man and Hens Behaving Badly. Two people on facebook thought the Hens in question were actual chickens. They're not. They are young ladies on their hen nights. It is a reminder of the value of having a programme title which does exactly what it says on the tin. Hence, I suspect, the slight tweak to our programme name. With Criminals: Caught on Camera, you know exactly what you're going to get.

The plan is to split the series into two with three episodes going out before Christmas, and three going out in January, though that may change.

These are the press shots:

Copyright Channel 5

and this one taken in Chester...

Copyright Channel 5

As I said in a previous post, this series has been a long time in the making. I'm really looking forward to seeing it on screen.

.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Caught on Camera tx date

Channel 5 have confirmed the first episode of Caught on Camera will be broadcast at 8pm on Friday 18 October.

I'm not sure exactly what I can say about it in advance, but I can tell you it seems like a long time since I signed up to the project, in March earlier this year.

Whilst continuing to present the BBC Surrey Saturday breakfast show I have spent most of the summer filming in various locations, and the programme has been coming together nicely in the edit. 

My last weekday breakfast show on BBC Surrey was on 19 October last year, and when I left I had no idea that twelve months later - almost to the day - I'd be presenting an hour of prime-time terrestrial TV, with five more in the offing. 

I suspect most of my blog posts over the next few weeks will be Caught on Camera-related. I'll hopefully be able to post up some press stills in the next few days. There might be some publicity activity surrounding the series. If there is, I'll point you in the right direction. 

In the meantime please tell your friends: Caught on Camera, Friday 18 October, 8pm, Channel 5.

Thanks!


Thursday, 22 August 2013

Caught on Camera

This autumn I'm going to present a six part television series for Channel 5 called Caught on Camera.

The announcement was made on the Channel 5 corporate website earlier today: 

CAUGHT ON CAMERA

In Caught On Camera, intrepid journalist Nick Wallis joins police forces across the country to reveal how CCTV and technological advances are recording more and more criminal activity. From petty street-crime to gangland murder we reveal the shocking footage and the real crimes that are Caught on Camera in the UK – by the public as well as the police – as well as exploring the devious tactics of pickpockets, shoplifters and con artists. The message of the series is simple: criminals beware, one way or another, you’re going to be Caught on Camera.

An in-house production by 5Production
TX Autumn 2013
Commissioned by Emma Westcott, Commissioning Editor Channel 5

Obviously I was delighted to be asked to do this. Hopefully you'll hear more about it closer to transmission date.

.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Post Office Second Sight report into Horizon

This blog post has been prompted by the July release of an interim report by the forensic accountancy firm Second Sight into the Post Office's Horizon computer system. 


copyright www.nickwallis.com
A Post Office, earlier today
I have been working on this story for a long time, and I'm finally beginning to see what it is.

My involvement started back in November 2010 when I received a call from a man whose pregnant wife had been sent to prison on the basis of computer evidence generated by Horizon. It led to an investigation broadcast on 7 Feb 2011 on my BBC Surrey show and on BBC1 South's Inside Out programme.

Following the broadcast of the investigation and a subsequent article published in Private Eye magazine, the Post Office announced it would be appointing Second Sight, a forensic accountancy firm, to look at Horizon and how well it's working.

The MP for North East Hampshire, James Arbuthnot, who featured in our initial broadcast, was one of the prime movers in all this. He effectively leaned on the Post Office, possibly pointing out the increasing level of media interest in the story, until they agreed to do something.

Second Sight's appointment was announced in June last year. Matt Prodger, the BBC's home affairs correspondent, had been gathering material on Horizon, and was able to react to this by broadcasting some of the interviews he had already recorded with Subpostmasters who had found their lives turned upside down by their experience.

In the meantime I stayed in touch with the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance, and continued to receive correspondence from Subpostmasters who stumbled across my initial blog post on the subject.


copyright www.nickwallis.com
Ha! Well! Ha! Yes! Ha!
The Second Sight interim report into the Horizon accounting system is a short and thankfully jargon-free document. And it is damning.

On the fundamental issue of whether software glitches have caused disruption within Horizon, the report is unequivocal.

"We are aware of 2 incidents where defects or 'bugs' in the Horizon software gave rise to 76 branches being affected by incorrect balances or transactions which took some time to identify and correct."
Paragraph 8.2.b, Second Sight interim report

So, in a relatively short investigation Second Sight has uncovered two instances of software glitches affecting computer systems in multiple Post Office branches.

This contradicts the statement the Post Office gave to Inside Out South two years ago, which claimed:

"The Horizon computer system is absolutely accurate and reliable"

When we first broadcast the complaints against the Post Office we were in a tricky place, legally. We had no proof there was anything wrong with Horizon, or that there ever had been. All we had was the word of a series of individuals, some of whom were now convicted criminals, none of whom were computer experts.

There was a public interest in broadcasting the information we had, but it had to be balanced against the fact that we didn't have a single shred of hard evidence - no whistleblower, no smoking gun, no paper trail, nothing. The Post Office, for its part, could point to a 100% success rate when it came to making prosecutions, noting that every time they took a case to court, the jury had concluded beyond reasonable doubt that the Subpostmasters in the dock were criminals. The Post Office refused all interview requests for our Inside Out programme.

Whilst trying to raise wider enthusiasm for this story in the months following its initial broadcast I had a chat with Stephen Mason, a barrister specialising in the presentation of electronic evidence in court. In fact, he wrote the book on it.

copyright www.stephenmason.eu
Stephen Mason
Mr Mason believes the legal system is failing when it comes to computer evidence.

Firstly because prosecution and defence lawyers don't understand what they're being presented with, and therefore don't know how to examine it properly, and are therefore unable to ask the right questions of the relevant experts in court.

Secondly, there is an underlying legal presumption that computer evidence is infallible, based on the assertion that "machines do not lie". The wording is odd, because it appears self-evident. Of course machines do not deliberately misrepresent, unless built to do so.

But legally this has come to mean that "machines do not make mistakes" ie if a mechanical device has done the same thing hundreds or thousands of times in exactly the same way, it is not a defence to say it must have started doing something differently. This idea was conceived well before anyone started programming computer software, and was meant to represent basic mechanical devices (say, a cash register), rather than the interlinked electronic eco-systems we depend on nowadays.

Thirdly, there is a widespread public perception that electronic evidence is infallible, hence the readiness of juries to convict on computer records alone.

I asked Mr Mason directly if it was conceivable that the Horizon system was throwing up random glitches, the central allegation of our Inside Out piece. "Yes of course." he replied.

Turns out, from chatting to people who work in IT, these sort of "legacy" (ie old) systems can be extremely problematic. Over a period of time, they degrade. The older they are the more problems can be expected, especially when you start bolting new features and interfaces onto it. But finding someone who works in this area (or more pertinently worked on Horizon itself) who would be prepared to break cover seemed impossible.

I asked the journalist I worked with at Private Eye about all the IT cock-up stories they'd run over the years - where did they get their whistleblowers from? He told me none of the information they received had ever come from anyone inside an IT company. It mainly leaked out through unions and politicians.

I suppose if you work in IT and you see a problem with a system you go to management or charge clients a fortune to fix it. It would be career suicide to go public.

Interestingly, Second Sight's report was picked up by the programmer forum slashdot. It's well worth reading the discussion there.

I also spotted this, from Angus Marshall, a "digital forensic examiner/expert witness" (who I have since contacted) on a motoring discussion forum:

"A few years back, I assisted with one case where a sub-postmaster was accused of defrauding the benefits systems by cashing vouchers and keeping the money for himself. The whole case revolved around a discrepancy between the Post Office system and the DWP system. Given that DWP's "error handling" consisted of throwing away any records that it didn't like the look of, without recording anything about them, we managed to get that "evidence" ruled unreliable and inadmissible pretty quickly.

It took about 4 hours of meetings with two of the system programmers - one DWP and one Post Office to discover that no-one had ever bothered to check that the data interchange specs. actually matched on both sides - and they'd never been told to consider the evidential requirements of their systems.

Both systems were (are) run by the same company, btw."

It has become apparent to me that the Horizon story is laying bare the logical inconsistency which governs the way non-IT people (including journalists, juries, lawyers, prosecutors and Post Office directors) think about technology.

We believe the commercial IT systems which affect our daily lives are durable to the point of being incapable of material error. We have to, or we'd never get in a car.

This belief is borne out by experience. Every time I go to the cashpoint, it works. Every time I buy something at the supermarket, it works. Every time I take a flight, it lands. What we're perhaps not aware of is the army of people making sure the software involved in these interactions is solid, by testing and re-testing, ironing out bugs and maintaining the systems at an optimum level.

So Horizon can go wrong or be misused. But so can any other computer system. With Horizon, are we looking at a computer system that is much worse (or more badly-maintained) than equivalent systems being used elsewhere, or are we focusing our attention on the wrong issue?

Let's assume that Horizon is no more unstable than any other bank's accounting system. Let's assume "random" software glitches occur once in every billion banking transactions (or whatever the industry-standard acceptable level of risk is) everywhere.

So what happens in every other banking system?

Nobody knows.

It all happens internally.

Losses are recorded, managers are alerted, customers are compensated (where appropriate) and codes are re-written/employees are re-trained to mitigate against future re-occurence.

Reports are produced, decisions about IT contracts and/or the investment in IT maintenance/support/training are made and the losses are written off. The risk of random IT glitches affecting the balance sheet is effectively spread amongst the bank's shareholders.

Indeed, we know Horizon "lost" more than two million quid in Crown Post Offices (the big city POs) in the 2007/8 financial year, and the figure was simply chalked against turnover.


copyright www.nickwallis.com
A non-Crown Post Office, today
With non-Crown Post Offices (ie all Sub Post Offices) it's different. Thanks to the extraordinary nature of the Subpostmaster contract, all the risk for any computer-generated accounting discrepancy falls on the individual Subpostmaster.

Culturally, the PO would far rather pursue individual postmasters for money its accounting system says it's owed than examine the possibility of errors within its own system. Whatever the personal cost to the individual postmaster concerned.

The Second Sight report picks up on the PO's culture of bureaucratic intransigence, and its effect on Subpostmasters who have had to try and deal with it:

eg: "Second Sight has asked POL [Post Office Ltd] to deliver... responses that would prove as easy to understand [as our own case review reports] that addressed the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Subpostmasters' complaints; and that were backed by evidence. Whilst the responses received from POL can be seen to be thorough, they are long and highly technical documents. In some cases, they present counter-assertions, based on Standard Operating Procedures and Controls, rather than tangible evidence of what actually happened."
From paragraphs 5.2 and 5.3, Second Sight interim report

"Many of the Subpostmasters we have dealt with remain aggreived and dissatified with what they see as POL's defensive and unsympathetic response. Whereas we had expected that some form of closure would be reached between POL and the Subpostmasters [whose cases we are looking at], this has so far not been achieved."
Paragraph 5.7, Second Sight interim report

There is also some satisfaction at giving the Post Office a taste of its own medicine:

"It is of course hard for POL to prove the negative (i.e. that [Horizon's] controls have not been circumvented) but it is only fair to say that POL now finds itself in the same situation that has faced all of the Subpostmasters who have submitted cases. They too, were unable to prove that the shortages or transactions that they reported to POL... were not the result of their own (or their employees') errors or criminal activity."
Paragraph 5.5, Second Sight interim report

Translation: suck it up and give us the information we want.

There's more:

"We can't help concluding that had POL investigated more of the "mysterious shortages" and problems reported to it [by its own Subpostmasters] with the thoroughness that it has investigated those reported to it by 2nd Sight, POL would have been in a much better position to resolve the matters raised, and would also have benefited from process improvements."
Paragraph 7.3, Second Sight interim report

Translation: if you'd have given a **** when your Subpostmasters raised these issues rather than sent in the prosecutors, not only would we not be here, you'd have far more robust and efficient systems.

Explicitly:

"When POL does investigate cases, there is often a focus on 'asset recovery solutions' without first establishing the underlying root cause of the problem. This is also an example of a missed opportunity to be in a much better position to resolve problems and to benefit from process improvements."

From the overall tone of the report it's clear Second Sight have some sympathy with the Postmasters' plight.

Seema Misra

Second Sight are being very thorough. On the day their report came out I received a call from the Today programme asking if I could recommend a Subpostmaster who would make a good guest. I gave them the name and mobile number of Seema Misra, the lady in West Byfleet who was sent to jail whilst pregnant because she refused to plead guilty to theft (I would love to see the stats for the severity of punishment handed out to asian Subpostmasters against their white counterparts, but I guess each case is different...).

Since being released from prison, Seema has moved the family out of Surrey and re-trained as a make-up artist.


copyright www.nickwallis.com
Seema (r) and Davinder Misra
The day Seema appeared on the Today programme she got a call from Second Sight. They'd heard her talking about her case and wanted to review it before their final report.

'Ivy'

Earlier today I spoke to another Subpostmaster (let's call her Ivy) who had problems with Horizon and avoided prison by the skin of her teeth. Ivy says since the Second Sight report came out it's been "exciting".

She pointed immediately to prosecutions against three Subpostmasters (Susan Knight, Tom Brown and Kym Wyllie) which have been dropped since the interim report came out "due to lack of evidence".

The Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance called this "the first demonstration that we have seen that POL are serious about resolving these issues", and seems to suggest a wind change in the PO's strategy.

Ivy says she's still disgusted by the way the PO treated her but thinks they now seem to be aware that "something has to happen, because we're not going to go away."

Ivy has also had regular conversations with a man from Second Sight. She says when Second Sight man first met her she was sure he thought she was a "bandit", but the more he heard about her story, the more he was shocked, and that this pattern is being repeated higher and higher up the food chain.

But it does seem to me at the moment that the focus of Second Sight, POL and the politicians is on the way Subpostmasters are treated by the PO and the terms of the Subpostmaster contract, rather than Horizon's ability to function properly.

I asked Ivy if Second Sight man thought there was something inherently unstable within Horizon's software. Ivy is sure he does, but thinks the final report won't say problems with Horizon are "what's the word.... systemic."

Finally I asked her if she thinks the worm has turned, and that she might one day get her conviction quashed. She told me she didn't know what to think right now, but it "would be nice, at least, to get back some of the money I lost."

Alan Bates

During our conversation Ivy could not speak highly enough of Alan Bates, who runs the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance, calling him "a hero". Alan is also roundly praised in the 2nd Sight report. He keeps a very low media profile, but he's always happy to natter on the phone. I asked him what's going on now Second Sight's report is in the public domain. He pointed me in a number of directions:

First of all he reiterated his unhappiness with Second Sight's investigation being commissioned and paid for by the Post Office. He thinks the PO's patronage was reflected in the interim report which went through more than 20 revisions before publication and was "reviewed and reviewed and reviewed by the Post Office until they had reviewed it flat."

Alan also told me that next week the Post Office is going to announce a case review process for Subpostmasters which has been developed with the JFSA and Second Sight. It will deal with existing and historic grievances, and could lead to independent mediation of individual cases.


BBC
Jo Swinson MP, 9 July 2013
Alan also recommended we keep an eye on the government in all this. The day after the 2nd Sight interim report was released the Minister for Postal Affairs, Jo Swinson, gave a statement to the Commons. "It's a very watchable 45 minutes" says Alan. I've just watched it. It is. It gets particularly good at 17m55s when MPs weigh in on behalf of their Subpostmaster constituents demanding better answers from the minister.

Alan is pretty sure the government is now a) aware of the scale of the problem (whatever 2nd Sight conclude that to be) and b) wants a swift resolution, because it is trying to sell bits of POL off and can't have this hanging over it. To that end, the government wants another interim update in October.

Finally, Alan mentioned that POL are advertising for a new computer system. "To replace Horizon?" I asked. "Well it doesn't specifically say that," he replied "but I'll send you the full advert and you can see for yourself. It's certainly a big contract."

Conclusion

To me, the Second Sight report represents one thing. Movement. There are an awful lot of people who have suffered, some considerably, as a result of being put in an impossible position. And it does seem as if the problems with Horizon, the Post Office's attitude and the risk-loading of the Subpostmaster contract is finally being taken seriously at the highest levels.

On a wider scale, this story has also reinforced to me the importance of journalism. The people who have been crushed in this case are worked hard, pay their taxes and before becoming Subpostmasters had no stains on their characters - the sort of people who naturally go to authority when things go wrong.

When they found themselves being prosecuted for "crimes" they often alerted the Post Office to in the first place, they believed they would be exonerated.

It is only with extreme reluctance, after they had lost their homes and jobs and been convicted as criminals, they contacted the media. These are not wily, media-savvy people we are talking about. They have no support networks or effective unions. They would naturally trust a police officer, a judge or a company director over a journalist every day of the week.

As a result their belief in society has been shattered. They see the justice system, company prosecutors and supposedly benign employers as heartless and wrong.

That's not to say this isn't all very curious. If the Horizon computer system is degrading into unreliability, it is doing so very slowly. As the Second Sight report states:

"The Horizon system involves approximately 68,000 users and processes over 6 million transactions every day. The entire population of over 11,800 branches was notified about the proposed investigation by 2nd Sight and this resulted in 14 additional cases being accepted for investigation. Whilst in no way minimizing [sic] the potential importance of the cases under review, this level of response suggests that the vast majority of Subpostmasters and branches are at least reasonably happy with the Horizon system."
Paragraph 1.11, 2nd Sight interim report

There is also, of course, the possibility that some of the people I have read about, spoken to and dealt with were knowingly defrauding the Post Office for personal gain. I haven't read the court documents or seen the evidence in every single case.

What I do know is that many hitherto blameless people have been suspended, sacked or convicted purely on computer evidence, by prosecutors working within a justice system inclined to believe in the infallibility of computers. Without doubt a large number of Subpostmasters are isolated, poorly-trained and tied into deeply unfair contracts by a company which seems to have a Dickensian "asset-recovery led" approach to industrial relations.

This story will go on for years. There are many who have lost everything through no fault of their own. The JFSA believe they deserve redress, which involves convictions being quashed, money returned and reputations restored. We are a long, long way from that, but perhaps the Second Sight investigation, the interim report and the way in which it has been received will offer the campaigning Supbpostmasters and their supporters a glimmer of hope.

*********************

Further reading: 


Select Committee inquiry written and oral evidence - Feb 2015 
Private Eye pieces about the Select Committee inquiry

Full transcript of Adjournment Debate - Dec 2014  
Private Eye piece about the adjournment debate
The One Show Commissions - Dec 2014
Legal fisking of the 2010 Seema Misra trial by Stephen Mason written in 2016
Second Sight Briefing Report pt 2 - Exclusive
Second Sight interim report July 2013 
My first BBC film on the subject in 2011

Transcript of my first BBC radio piece on the subject in 2011
Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance 
Computer Weekly Timeline 

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Sunday, 11 August 2013

Love to love you. Baby.

Popjustice is a reliably bonkers website. If you can get to the end of the About section without smashing your screen, well done.

When Popjustice tweeted this...


... I clicked on the link. Before you do:

Imagine you are 18 years old and your grandfather, who has dropped by for the weekend, says:

"Remember when we made the newspaper front pages, thirty five years ago, because they heard we had stumbled across the ability to turn base metal into gold? Well, we didn't. We failed. We tried, and we nearly did it. The results were very impressive. But, essentially, we failed."

And you nod, and you say (because, in my mind, you are Peter the Goatherd from the Heidi books) "Yes Grandpa. I wasn't alive then, but I remember that's what made you famous around the world, and brought you the riches you have kindly bestowed upon this family."

"That's right." says your Grandpa, "That's right..."

He beckons you over, and his voice drops. "Last night... for the first time... we got the formula to work..."

You stop, wide-eyed with amazement.

"It isn't all that different. It's just... thirty-five years ago... we didn't have the tools to do what we are doing now..."

You stare at him, wondering what is going to happen next.

"I want you to tell me what you think of this..." he says, opening a box he has set down in front of you.

F*** my old boots. There is magic coming out of that sound system. Magic.

.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Christian O'Connell Edinburgh comedy show "radio" review


Christian O'Connell has been getting good reviews (Chortle: "a decent fist", The Independent: "solid", The List: "moments of genius") for his Edinburgh show, which runs for another couple of weeks. There is also a wonderful interview with him in The Stage, which is revealing and rather touching.

Here is the "radio-skewed" review of his set I sent to RadioToday, which they said they'd run and don't seem to have done. Seems a shame to waste it. If you're really bored you can see how it compares to the review of the same show I wrote for the Dorking Advertiser.

Okay, RadioToday review follows:

"Being funny on the radio is a very different discipline to being funny on stage - but with this set Christian O'Connell proves he can do both.

Christian's one-hour Edinburgh show inhabits the same blokey universe he cultivates on his Absolute Radio breakfast show. It's a world populated by men staring aghast at the encroachment of responsibility on their ever-diminishing island of fun.

The show is based on Christian's discovery of a list he wrote at the age of 13, describing various things he would like to achieve by the time he reaches 40. The list has provided copious material for his breakfast show this year and provides a series of useful jumping off points for his set.

References to the day job are well-handled. He has a routine about teaching his daughter how to deal with bullies at school  ("all you have to do is show them this - my Q1 2013 RAJAR results - and they'll see  my year-on-year audience share has increased 17.6%. So you can tell them I do have listeners…"), as is the what-happened-next story following David Cameron's potty-mouthed outburst on Absolute Radio in 2009.

Other subjects include Kelly LeBrock (with a brilliant one-liner about her former husband Steven Segal), Darth Vader, Ferris Bueller, marriage, fatherhood and online porn. The latter becomes something of a theme throughout the set (I'm not judging) and Christian's stories about hunting through bushes for magazines as a teenager ("in the 80s we didn't have Google - we had to forage") were very good.

The show ends with a listener email (in Edinburgh it will end with a video, which wasn't quite ready for this preview), which is deranged enough to be hilarious in itself, but is then superbly deconstructed to ensure the evening finishes on a high.

It's not for everyone - the woman sitting next to me went long periods without laughing, presumably because she'd never been a 13 year old boy or a 40 year old man. But for someone like me, who was a 13 year old boy and who also turned 40 this year, the material rang true, far too often.

If you like what Christian does on the radio and you are going to Edinburgh, make sure you see this. It's rude, it's honest, it's funny and as the redoubtable Comedy Cottage host Sajeela Kershi said to me after his set, far better than many other experienced comedians.

End note: Christian very kindly sent me the finished video this morning. It's ramshackle and charming and sums up his set, but being honest, I reckon he should finish on the listener email. 

Christian O'Connell is appearing at the Udderbelly, Bristo Square, Edinburgh, from 31 July to 20 August  2013

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The man who saved 40,000 lives


Eli Beer
Every week I download a bunch of podcasts and listen to them at the gym. They are mainly radio/comedy podcasts - Frank Skinner and Richard Herring being current favourites.

I also download (among others) R4's Moneybox, the FT's Banking Weekly and TEDtalks.

TED is an organisation dedicated to getting the leading speakers in the world together to better inform their already very well-informed audience about stuff that is important. I might be right in saying that an invitation to talk at TED means that you are a world-leader at something interesting, and you have the ability to tell people about it in an interesting way.

The TEDtalk I downloaded this week is by a passionate man with a ridiculously good personal story and an inspirationally simple idea. His name is Eli Beer. Listen to his 10 minute talk here:


The talk exists as a video. But I think you would get more out of it if you discovered it in the same way I did, as a piece of audio, with no preconceptions about this man or any idea what he was going to talk about. It's far more effective.

Why on earth Eli's system doesn't exist in London, I have no idea. 

.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Christian O'Connell - Edinburgh show review


The Comedy Cottage is a peripatetic comedy night run by the redoubtable Sajeela Kershi, which seems to have found its home at The Harlequin Theatre in Redhill.

Cottage night is the last Friday of every month, and has a loyal band of comedy fans (known, inevitably, as Cottagers) who have doubled in number over the last couple of years.

I find it hard to get down there, because it's a 40 minute drive away, it finishes late and I have to get up at 4.20am to present the Saturday Breakfast show on BBC Surrey. But when I do get the chance, I love it.

When I heard Christian O'Connell was performing a preview of his Edinburgh show at the Comedy Cottage last Friday, I couldn't resist, especially as Brendon Burns (a previous IF.comedy winner) was topping the bill with his Edinburgh 2013 preview.

I like Christian a lot. I think he's very funny on the radio and you can hear how hard he is working to maintain the quality levels every day. I also like him personally - I've interviewed him a couple of times at the Sony Radio Awards, and found him very good value.

I was originally going to just go along on Friday for a bit of fun, but given I had a professional interest in what Christian is trying to do (and so probably wouldn't fully switch off), I offered to review it for a couple of outlets. 

Getting on stage and doing a routine in the first place is difficult enough, but making it good enough to take to the Festival is another matter entirely. Writing and finessing an performance to grace Edinburgh whilst doing a high profile national breakfast gig will, I should think, have tested Christian's reserves somewhat.

Afterwards I was chatting to Sajeela, and she said Christian's set was far better than many other established comedians' first hour-long shows. I enjoyed it a lot and it felt good to be there.

A more radio-industry skewed review will appear in the eRADIO Radio Today email later this week, but here is the one that went up on the Surrey Mirror/Dorking Advertiser website today:

"REVIEW: Radio DJ Christian O'Connell warms up for Edinburgh

Monday, July 29, 2013 Surrey Mirror
By Nick Wallis

What: Christian O'Connell - This is 13 (preview)
Where: Comedy Cottage, Harlequin Theatre, Redhill, July 26

Dorking's Christian O'Connell has built a name for himself over the past few years as one of the funniest and most committed radio presenters in the country. His breakfast show on Absolute Radio is an an honest, and often hilarious window into a world inhabited by men resolutely refusing to grow up, despite the increased responsibilities of age.

It is this world which Christian mines for his first Edinburgh Festival show, previewed on Friday 26 July at Sajeela Kershi's Comedy Cottage night at the Harlequin Theatre in Redhill.

The show hangs on the discovery of a list written by Christian when he was 13 year old, describing things he wanted to achieve before he was 40.

Examples include playing Bryan Robson at Subbuteo, dating Kelly Le Brock, "kicking Darth Vader in" and having a day off like Ferris Bueller. For men of a certain age, these references will press buttons. It also makes for a very good evening's entertainment.

Although on paper the two disciplines may look similar, making people laugh on the radio is very different from making a room full of paying customers laugh. For an hour. On your own.

Christian achieves this fluently. His strengths are his script and his confidence in his material. His description of hunting through bushes for hidden porn mags as a teenager ("in the 80s we didn't have Google - we had to forage") were a delight, and various meditations on swearing, radio, marriage and family responsibility felt properly honed. 

Be warned, Christian is dealing with grown up subject matter, and he was using the sort of language that would get him carted out of his radio studio before you could say "David Cameron", "p***ing" and "t***" (which the Prime Minister did on Christian's show in 2009, replayed to the audience's general astonishment during the set).

There were only a few moments when the pace flagged, but it was disappointing to find the tone didn't vary much - the woman sitting next to me went long periods without laughing, presumably because she'd never been a 13 year old boy, and therefore unlikely to share many of Christian's preoccupations.

But for someone like me, who was a 13 year old boy and who also turned 40 this year, the material rang far too true, far too often.

If you like what Christian does on the radio and you are going to Edinburgh, make sure you see this. There is no doubt a career as a very successful stand up awaits, if he wants it.

Monday, 1 July 2013

On the Mic - Surrey Life - June 2013

My last Surrey Life column for a while. Full archive below...


Everybody loves music. If you told someone you didn’t, they would think you were odd. The problem is with radio it attracts people who love music a bit too much.

I was brought up in the days when records were a scant resource. Pocket money would just about stretch to one single a week, and if you didn’t own it, you had to work hard to find it. 

For me, this meant switching on the radio and waiting forever to hear a favourite song, or kneeling next to the single speaker at the front of our tiny telly, recording Top of the Pops on the internal microphone of the mono cassette recorder I was given for my 8th birthday. 

The quality was bad enough at the best of times, but the audience whooping and clapping during Don't You Want Me by the Human League on the 1981 TotP Christmas Special rendered my recording completely unlistenable. Not that it still rankles or anything.

Youthful obsessions with Adam and the Ants, Duran Duran and The Cure gave way to a wider appreciation of pop made in the pre-punk era. 

By the mid-nineties I was working at my university’s student radio station. Britpop was in its heyday, promotional budgets were huge and student radio programmers gathered substantial crumbs. Once I would spend cumulative hours in record shops agonising over which album I would buy each month. Now I was being sent every record by every new band and getting into any gig I wanted for free.

When I sauntered through the doors of my first professional radio station, I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about music, and I thought it wouldn’t be long before I got the chance to share my enthusiasm with the station’s listeners.

It’s a perfectly natural impulse. People who work in radio want to play their favourite records on the radio. Listeners expect and understand this because, given the chance, they would do exactly the same. It’s the perennial appeal of Desert Island Discs.

Unfortunately (and this has been a slow learning curve for me), just because I have the privilege of working in radio, I don’t have the right to commandeer precious airtime to inflict my tedious musical enthusiasms on people. With good reason. 

Very few presenters choose any, let alone all of the songs they play, save a knowledgeable few with excellent taste and, often, very small audiences.

The music policy at BBC Surrey is based on selecting the very best and/or most popular songs in existence, sprinkled with a fair bit of new stuff. But you’ll hear as much Bowie, Beatles and Beach Boys as you will Adele, Paloma Faith and Stooshe. 

Whilst it’s extremely unlikely we’ll play anything to scare the horses (unless you are tuned to master horse-scarer Phil Jackson and his new music show on Saturday nights) that doesn’t mean bland, benign rubbish. 

Obviously I’d love to hear more Adam and the Ants. But would you?

****************************


May 2013 - on supermarkets
April 2013 - on The Invasion of the Coffee Shops
March 2013 - There was NO column in March 2013...
February 2013 - on turning 40
January 2013 - why January should be about headaches, mild depression and whisky
December 2012 - on doing more stand up comedy
November 2012 - on stopping doing weekday breakfast
October 2012 - on trying to engage brain and mouth on air
September 2012 - on my BBC microphone
August 2012 - on the Olympics
July 2012 - on being on holiday with three small children
June 2012 - on joining a gym
May 2012 - on making live radio
April 2012 - on being ill