RADIO often goes in one ear and out the other, but an exchange on BBC Scotland a few years ago has stayed with me.

A Scottish cultural figure – who will remain nameless to protect the guilty – was giving a confessional interview to a sympathetic reporter. In the language of daytime TV, they were “opening up” about their past.

This, they explained, had been characterised by periods of considerable difficulty, not all of their own making. The conversation turned to the unkind and self-involved ways they’d let down and used and abused people in their life. This is standard fare – a routine staple in our voyeuristic and confessional culture – but what struck me most was the interviewer’s reaction.

She immediately congratulated her guest on how brave they were for being so open about their failures. Their wrongdoing – and its impact on those they’d wronged – dissipated into a round of applause, without any real attempt to find out whether our confessor had a lick of regret, real insight into their behaviour or any true purpose of redemption at all. We were taken straight to mercy, missing out justice entirely.

It struck me right then – confession can be an excellent way of avoiding responsibility. This might seem like a perverse observation – but think about it a little, and I guarantee you’ll have met someone in your life, your work or your family who understands the manipulative power of the superficial apology, getting their retaliation in first by fessing up first. Sorry might seem to be the hardest word to say – but too often it isn’t. Saying sorry is far too easy.

I was reminded of the broadcast last week, as I fired up the livestream from the Post Office Inquiry. Paula Vennells stepped out of a taxi into a media scrum on Tuesday morning, looking harried, flanked by police officers, anticipating three days under the grill.

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But for the General Election announcement, she’d have been front-page news all week. Even with Rishi Sunak’s drookit call to the ballot box, her weepy performance featured prominently across the media. And damn right too.

Having served as the Post Office director between 2012 and 2019, Vennells has an unenviable legacy of corporate leadership to defend. A national brand, reduced to a national scandal. Thousands of lives wrecked. Her own reputation – slag.

And all that, before we establish what she knew, when she knew it and her particular contribution to the Post Office’s ruthless persecution of its own staff and sustained efforts to keep the truth of their situation out of the courts, the media and public consciousness.

Pious Paula owned up to a couple of faults on day one. She was too trusting, she said. And too curious, apparently. This self-assessment sat awkwardly beside her main account because Paula’s defence was one of regretful ignorance.

Like the countless bundling middle managers, security goons, cynical PR men, negligent lawyers and incurious corporate lifers we’ve already met at this inquiry, Vennells seems to have regarded herself as a postbox for other people’s ideas. She didn’t think there was a conspiracy to keep information off her desk and out of her clutches – but nevertheless went into everything from board meetings to House of Commons select committees lacking basic insight into how the Post Office worked.

Here lies a brief catalogue of everything Paula says she didn’t know. She didn’t know the Post Office prosecuted people. She didn’t know she employed hundreds of investigators. She wasn’t told about legal advice which said their expert witness had lied in court by failing to disclose Horizon’s failures.

She didn’t know about the bugs in Horizon until she did know about them. But when she found out some bugs existed, she accepted assurances that the bugs everyone had strenuously denied ever existing were minor technical issues of no real significance for the overall robustness of the system.

She intervened to get references to Horizon expunged from official documents and boasted about “earning her keep” by doing so – but insisted this deletion was made in good faith, and had nothing at all to do with keeping that squirming bag of horrors safely tucked out of public sight while the Government was trying to flog the business.

The tears, when they came, came for herself. Confronted by documented falsehoods she peddled, she tended to have a wee cry. She could only admit to lying to MPs on several occasions – but this was only a venial sin because she lied in good faith based on what others told her. I leave you to just how credible these claims are.

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By the end of her evidence, I kept coming back to a quote Jason Beer KC put to her near the start of her first day. It was a reflection from a former colleague, suggesting Vennells was emotionally incapable of processing the idea that she might have been an instrument for such widespread injustice. “Paula did not believe there had been a miscarriage and could not have got there emotionally,” he said.

Having watched her for three days, this feels like an acute interpretation. For all the apologies – and there were many – there was a powerful sense running through all of Vennells’s evidence that she is still incapable of reconciling what she did and has been party to with her sense of self, her identity and those values she wears so very heavily.

Paula clearly sees herself – and would like us to see her – as the patron saint of corporate compassion. Every concern which was raised with her, she anxiously considered. She wasn’t defensive in the face of accusations that a grave injustice had been done, but insisted every allegation should be properly scrutinised. She wasn’t stubbornly resistant to the idea she’d been the instrument of gross injustice in the world – she was known and criticised in the business for having a soft spot for subpostmasters, she claimed. She clearly wants and needs to believe this. The problem is that the record tells a different story.

Towards the end of her last day at the inquiry, Vennells was taken to an email she sent to senior colleagues in 2014, reviewing the contents of an item on the scandal on the BBC’s One Show. By this stage, she knew a lot about Horizon’s shortcomings. She had received a fat postbag of letters from subpostmasters explaining how it and the Post Office enforcers had wrecked their lives and their livelihoods. She had helped co-ordinate the Post Office’s PR response to the suicide of another, during which the evidence is clear that Vennells was speculating about the dead man’s mental health, encouraging colleagues to look into his circumstances, keen to rummage through his personal life.

The One Show piece shone a light on postmasters’ claims that Horizon shortfalls were responsible for civil claims and criminal prosecutions. In her review of the item, the sainted Vennells dismissed the piece, scoffing even at this late stage at the attack on Horizon’s reliability. “Hype and human interest,” she drawled, saying it was “not easy for me to be objective but I was more bored than outraged”. The mask slips, as they say. She apologised for the language, inevitably, but still seemed incapable of understanding how these comments captured the corporate culture she presided over.

Again and again, she was asked, “did you write X? Did you say X?” And she consistently responded that “I shouldn’t have written X”, accompanied by claims she “didn’t mean” what the evidence shows she said, or that her “tone” or “word choice” was bad, or that what she said “reads badly” in hindsight – but please be assured that she never really talked like that, or thought like that, or worked that way.

A braver and more honest person might have been able to own up to the fact that during her tenure in charge, the Post Office was aggressive, ignorant, self-righteous, defensive and deceptive. She might have admitted that they convinced themselves – wrongly – that all these postmasters were dubious chancers, troublemakers with whom they were locked in a PR war to the death. Vennells might have conceded that this groupthink was toxic and this helped create and perpetuate the scandal.

But to achieve that kind of insight, you’d need much more moral imagination than to instantly apologise for what you said in the emails you’ve been caught in – as if the main indictment against you was your ugly choice of words in a private message. An apology on those terms, for that, entirely misses the point.

We all have a picture of ourselves in our heads which aligns – more or less closely – with what we really are and how we’ve treated others. But what happens to a person when they’re confronted with incontrovertible evidence they acted in ways they can’t reconcile with that flattering image of themselves?

If you believe you are a compassionate, caring, open-minded person, and you are shown proof you weren’t compassionate, didn’t care and worked to uphold a widespread injustice with a mind locked shut, what do you do?

The three days of Paula Vennells’s evidence offers up one answer – be evasive, self-deceiving, too quick to apologise – and apologise for all the wrong things.