The Post Office scandal shows podcasting still comes second to TV

Mr Bates vs The Post Office isn’t a new story

I love podcasting. It’s an art form of endless variety, and I’m a passionate advocate for my favourite shows, as well as the medium as a whole. I spend far more of my time with podcasts than with TV and in fact, outside of a few guilty pleasures (such as rewatching Scrubs for the fifth time), I find I barely watch TV any more.

It’s tempting to think that this view is shared by an increasing number of people, particularly with more and more high-profile podcasts hitting the airwaves. Occasionally, however, I’m served a reminder of podcasting’s place within the media hierarchy, and never has that been clearer than amidst the recent conversation around the Post Office Horizon scandal.

On New Year's Day, ITV aired the first episode of its miniseries Mr Bates vs the Post Office - a docudrama starring the wonderful Toby Jones that covered an ongoing scandal involving faulty accounting software, corporate cover-ups and a vast miscarriage of justice. The show has proven to be an immediate hit and has sparked national interest around the case, with politicians taking notice and vowing to step in and correct this egregious wrong. 

However, I find the fact that this conversation is only just now being had somewhat galling on a number of fronts; firstly, as a dedicated member of the trade press (and a former member of the tech press, to boot), it’s frustrating that the outstanding work of the dedicated journalists at Computer Weekly who played such a pivotal role in uncovering the scandal have gone unnoticed up until now. While their role is rightly recognised in the new series, they have been trying to raise awareness of it for over a decade. 

Secondly, the scandal has been covered extensively by a number of podcasts, including Wondery’s Generation Why, The Guardian’s Today In Focus, and a ten-part series produced for Radio 4 in 2020 and released on BBC Sounds. Why, then, are the general public and the government only just now starting to take notice?

The answer, sadly, seems to be that TV still commands far more cultural cache than podcasting. A primetime drama series on ITV has the ability to raise awareness and influence opinion in ways that podcasting apparently hasn’t managed to crack. 

Of course, this isn’t to say that podcasting doesn’t have the ability to make a difference - the number of true-crime podcasts that have reopened cold cases, uncovered fresh evidence and revealed previously-hidden scandals of their own is proof enough of that. However, the fact remains that even the most revelatory podcast doesn’t land with the same impact as a major TV production.

Part of the reason for that may lie in the problem podcasts have with discoverability. Even in our modern world of digital TV and on-demand streaming where the choice of channels stretches into the hundreds, there’s only so much to choose from - which makes it all the easier for shows like Mr Bates vs The Post Office to stand out, particularly when they’re on one of the UK’s top channels. 

Podcasts, by contrast, have to work that much harder to be noticed, and don’t have the luxury of piggybacking on an existing channel’s broadcast schedule. While collated feeds like Tenderfoot TV or Sony’s The Binge are making an effort to replicate the network effect of a curated channel of programming, it doesn’t work in quite the same way.

The truth is, as much as we in the podcast industry like to highlight the growing popularity of the medium and the deep engagement it has with listeners, in terms of reach and profile, it still simply doesn’t compare to TV - at least, not yet. We need to be realistic about this fact, and focus our efforts on raising its profile through doing excellent work, and then shouting about it to as wide an audience as possible.

The success of ITV’s Post Office drama does have a silver lining for podcasters, however. It’s likely to fuel renewed interest in TV dramas covering real-life scandals and investigations - something that the podcast industry has been doing a roaring trade in for years. It’s not hard to imagine the likes of Blanchard’s House’s dolphin sex scandal podcast Hooked On Freddie making a compelling drama series, for example, or the BBC’s podcast around a bizarre crossbow murder, which already has echoes of ITV’s Broadchurch.

Cracking the podcast-to-TV pipeline is still the goal for many production companies, and this most recent example is evidence of why that is. Podcasting may build connections and affinity like no other medium, but when it comes to making a splash, TV remains the reigning champ.