‘The Trojan Horse Affair’ Podcast Against the British Press

Hamza Syed and Brian Reed say the U.K. establishment’s response to their podcast has been “bewildering.”
Photo: Sean Pressley

The Trojan Horse Affair, the latest podcast from Serial Productions, debuted last month with formidable ambition. Hosted by Brian Reed, the veteran produced behind S-Town, and Hamza Syed, a Birmingham native and budding journalist, the series revisits a British political scandal from 2014 in which a fake letter supposedly revealing an Islamist conspiracy to infiltrate the school system in the English city of Birmingham and operate it according to strict Islamist principles was leaked to the press. The resulting news coverage, which largely failed to question the letter’s authenticity, sparked a hysterical public response, which politicians seized on by implementing policies that further encumbered the lives of Muslims in the U.K. The effects of those policies persist to this day, even though the letter itself is now widely understood to have been a hoax. The Trojan Horse Affair kicks off by attending to a key mystery of the letter that remains unresolved: Who wrote it, and why?

Produced over years of investigative reporting, the podcast broke news. Among other things, Reed and Syed’s reporting generated tangible evidence that public officials both in Birmingham and in the British government clearly knew the letter was a hoax before pressing ahead with Muslim-targeting policies. And while they came up short in definitively determining who wrote the letter, the duo substantiated a theory that it likely arose out of an internal dispute at a local Birmingham school, Adderley. In other words, The Trojan Horse Affair paints a convincing picture of an interpersonal mess that spun wildly out of control, aided and abetted by opportunistic politicians and a complicit press, and it does so with considerable nuance and complexity.

As a media product, The Trojan Horse Affair swiftly became a hit. A spokesperson for the New York Times, which owns Serial Productions, said that the eight-part series garnered more than 13 million downloads in its first three and a half weeks.

Illustration: New York Times / Serial

But as impact journalism, the podcast appears to have run into a wall. In the first few weeks since release, it drew little coverage in the British media. (This Twitter thread, compiled by Adrian Hon, illustrates the fact.) What coverage there has been has mostly come from culture writers, who tend to approach the podcast as entertainment rather than grappling with the significance of its findings as a news story. “It’s the kind of wild conspiracy theory that should be ideal podcast fodder, but Reed and Syed find themselves faced with an insurmountable problem: trying to make the minutiae of local politics exciting,” the Financial Times wrote in the “Arts” section.

One major through-line explored in the podcast is the culture of the British press, which it critiques as being less skeptical of its government than it really should be, and whether it was that culture — combined with the country’s tenuous relationship with its Muslim population — that ultimately led to the disastrous consequences of the Trojan Horse Affair.

History seems to be repeating itself, with the British press treating the podcast in much the same way it did the original scandal. In recent weeks, there has been a shift in the tenor of the response to the podcast. In The Guardian, Sonia Sodha, a British columnist and former political adviser, wrote an opinion piece criticizing it as “a one-sided account that minimizes child protection concerns, misogyny and homophobia.” The column is a peculiar piece of whataboutism, at various points mischaracterizing the podcast’s actual findings and arguments and what it set out to investigate. It appears to be one-sided itself. A spokesperson for Serial Productions told Vulture that, before the column’s publication, it had sent a right-to-reply letter systematically rebutting the major points of Sodha’s argument. That response, which Vulture has reviewed, was largely ignored.

Since then, similar opinion pieces have appeared in other publications. Khalid Mahmood, a Birmingham politician who during the scandal helped push the focus away from the question of the letter’s authenticity, wrote a column in the conservative magazine The Spectator that evoked the specter of the Caliphate controversy to discredit the podcast. (It’s probably worth noting at this point that Serial Productions and NYT Audio, which produced Caliphate, are separate, independent units.) Elsewhere, The Times ran a piece rampantly speculating that Reed and Syed’s reporting may have broken the law, which the New York Times disputes.

None of these pieces directly grapples with the podcast’s fundamental finding: The government’s handling of the scandal simply wasn’t kosher, and no one has been held accountable for it. The hits keep coming: Earlier this week, Insider’s international desk published a post parroting Sodha, The Spectator, and The Times under the obfuscating headline that “questions have been raised” about the series, and on Tuesday, Michael Gove, who served as the U.K. secretary of education during the scandal and is identified in the reporting as having acted on the letter despite knowing it was a hoax, dismissed the podcast as “shoddy journalism.”

“It’s so weird and meta that my head is spinning,” said Syed, whose experience as a British Muslim inspired him to pursue this story, when Vulture spoke with him and Reed earlier this week. (The interview took place before Gove’s comments.) Sounding frustrated, incredulous, and perhaps a little furious, they discussed the podcast’s treatment in the British press, what accounts for it, and what it means.

It has been almost a month since Trojan Horse came out. How do you feel about the response to the podcast so far?

Brian Reed: I’ve been grateful for some of it, particularly in the U.S. It’s gratifying in the way something can be when you’ve worked really hard on it and you’re hoping people will clue into what you’re trying to say. That’s been happening with listeners around the world. What’s been strange has been the response in the British media and the British Establishment. I would charitably describe it as “bewildering.” It started out as muted, weirdly quiet. Then it morphed into … What’s the word? Angry. Defensive. Critical. Petulant.

Hamza Syed: I have the same sentiments. In a sense, this story circumvented the British media class, so part of me thought that because this podcast was going to be heard in Britain anyway, maybe there would be a public response to a point such that British reporters would have to acknowledge our findings, even if through gritted teeth.

That hasn’t happened. For the first two weeks, it looked like everybody hunkered down and hoped it would go away. Then the podcast occupied the top spot in the charts for a bit, and I thought, Wouldn’t that do something? That something was them creating a distraction, as they always do.

Tell me more about what you mean by that.

Reed: There’s been silence about the main points we’ve raised in our reporting — about this massive forgery perpetrated on the British public, used to institute far-reaching counterterrorism policies that people are still living with today, that still affects minority groups. It’s a forgery that’s been debunked. We detailed all of that over four years of investigative reporting, and it’s almost crickets from the British media. Instead, there’s been criticism of us, or of the people in the story as individuals, or people saying, “You didn’t pay enough attention to this or that.”

Of course, we’re not above criticism. Please scrutinize our work. That’s important. But I would expect, in equal measure, you’d also grapple with the serious findings of our work and then try to hold some people involved in this travesty to account. At this point, it’s starting to look like, if not a coordinated effort by certain people and outlets to create distractions from the primary thread of the reporting, then a groupthink settling in allowing those distractions to happen.

There are other things worth noting. For instance, we learned that the day before the show came out, the Department for Education (DfE) circulated a letter to several major outlets in the U.K. that we now know had a chilling effect on some coverage about the story. So that might have accounted for the muted reaction, at least for a while. We learned about this letter during an interview with a big publication, when the reporter told us before we started, “I had a bunch of questions I wanted to ask about the substance of your reporting, but I can’t ask them now because of this legal letter.”

What’s in the letter?

Reed: This was something I wasn’t familiar with as an American reporter, but in the U.K., it’s more normal to have what are called “reporting restrictions orders” in regard to legal cases where, for instance, you can’t say certain things or identify certain people in relation to a case. This letter was about one specific case of the many that were related to the Trojan Horse Affair, and it was a reminder of this reporting restriction order that was circulated the day before the podcast came out. Now, the DfE didn’t have to send this letter around, but they chose to, and they chose to do it on this very specific day in a very specific way.

We learned that if you read it quickly and don’t spend a lot of time getting a legal analysis of it, the letter can give the impression that it’s dangerous to talk about the specifics or specific people who are mentioned in our story. So we know it had a chilling effect, because a reporter told us there was a chilling effect.

[Note: The existence of the letter was noted in Mahmood’s column in The Spectator.]

Syed: What you have to ask is: Where’s the impetus by the reporter to ask a basic question here? Something like, “Sorry, this letter is pretty vague — can you be more specific about what detail in this podcast we’re not allowed to speak about?” Have you called the DfE to figure out what this letter actually is? For me, that’s reflective of the culture in British reporting we’re up against here. There’s such a deference to power and authority.

The podcast is supposed to demonstrate how things can go so wrong if that’s your attitude as journalists in Britain. It’s the same phenomenon that created the Trojan Horse affair in 2014, and now the same thing is happening with the podcast.

It’s so weird and meta that my head is spinning around in it. What does that say about the state of journalism in the general? That you have a yearslong investigative project — deeply researched, evidence-driven, legally verified, fact-checked — essentially being treated as equivalent to, like, one opinion piece. I don’t know what to do with that. Should we all just do opinion pieces because who cares?

The fifth episode was about the culture of whistle-blowers in the U.K. who have personal grievances that they decide to package as other matters, and about the advocacy groups that promote these whistleblower groups by pretending they’re neutral parties who got involved out of curiosity, along with the reporters who just publish these claims uncritically without verification. That opinion piece from Sonia Sodha is basically a demonstration of that. It’s exactly the same phenomenon.

Reed: That is not a piece that’s interested in informing readers of the truth. Before she ran with that, we provided Sonia with pages of information showing why what she seemed to be planning to write was ill-informed and wrong. Almost the entirety of what we sent her was ignored. It’s really disappointing.

Syed: I have to say: I knew this was going to happen. I had this nervous energy or anxiety that I carried through this whole reporting process — you can hear it in the podcast — that came out of my desperation to find a definitive end, to get some sort of truth or confession, because I did not want to leave an inch of follow-up to the British press. I knew that if we don’t put this story out with an absolute conclusion, and thereby leaving something for them to complete, they will not do it. And here we are. I see that as our failure. Because if you’re dealing with Britain and its relationship to Muslims, that’s what’s going to happen.

Joshua Benton, of the journalism blog Nieman Lab, recently argued that maybe the outcome might’ve been different if this was, say, a 4,000-word feature in the New York Times instead — that maybe the podcast format is too niche and self-enclosed such that it’s easier for the media in the community where it takes place to ignore the investigation. Do you think that’s right?

Reed: Probably. Yeah, I think the fact there could be real reporting inside of a podcast is still breaking the media’s brain a little bit. There’s been plenty of important investigative reporting happening in podcasting. We’ve had plenty of examples by this point, from Serial to In the Dark. But I still don’t think it’s totally understood that way, and Britain is possibly behind on that too. I know we’ve been having some conversations internally about whether we should put a headline on something like this and also run it in print to get some traction.

Separate from the response by the British press, have there been any other developments with the Trojan Horse Affair itself?

Reed: To an extent. There’s been some mobilizing in Birmingham. The Muslim Council of Britain, one of the major Muslim-advocacy umbrella groups in the country, is calling for an independent inquiry. There are groups forming on Twitter where people are saying, “Finally, this is getting the attention it needs.”

But with the letter itself, I don’t know a single reporter who has contacted the governing body. We’ve heard almost nothing out of the Birmingham City Council, which our reporting shows knowingly put a fake letter in front of a judge as evidence, among many other things. All we’ve gotten is a relatively bland statement from them saying, “This is old news; we’ve moved on.”

Syed: As far as the local community is concerned, I feel like this kind of thing happens so infrequently for British Muslims that I don’t think they know what to do with it. I’ve gotten tons of messages from people, from Muslim mates of mine in Birmingham — they’re all getting together and talking about the podcast, but they have no idea what happens beyond that because they haven’t been in this position before.

There’s a sequence in the third episode that reflects on your different perspectives on the purpose of journalism — how Hamza got into this to make an impact, and how Brian expressed that that outlook is only going to bring disappointment. I’m wondering how you feel about that question in the wake of all this.

Reed: I’m going to stay silent over here.

Syed: Ah, mate. It’s just … it’s just depressing. Because as a story, it’s doing great. Millions of people are listening. I feel like it’s resonating with people. In terms of actually having an impact, nothing. That’s where I feel most aggrieved. We might find out that two or three million people ultimately listen to this podcast in Britain, but that won’t matter if you can’t convince one reporter or one person in authority to do some follow-ups. The news won’t matter. The journalism won’t matter. What I feel like I’m seeing is the journalism dying and the story propagating further and further. And so Brian was right and I was wrong.

What comes next for you?

Reed: Hamza’s just pacing around, smoking cigarettes and aging himself.

Syed: Yeah, yeah, I’m just accelerating toward death as fast as I can. Listen, I have no plans. I haven’t had conversations with anybody. There have been people reaching out with projects, as you can imagine …

So you’re sticking around the news business?

Syed: [Exhausted sound] I don’t know. I don’t have a good taste in my mouth because of what happened. Like I said: For the rest of the world, this is a story. For Britain, this was a piece of journalism, and where it mattered as journalism, it hasn’t done anything. So if I’m just standing here and looking at that and interrogating what I want to do …

Reed: Personally, what I think should’ve happened is that there should be some kind of formal inquiry by the government, or by the police at minimum, into who wrote the letter. But nothing with respect to the kind of accountability you were looking for has happened.

Hamza, what do you think about the conversations that have been happening? We laid out a comprehensive account of the facts as best we could, for the record, for posterity, for people to hear and talk about. So it is doing something in that regard, but that’s more intangible, which I know is not your jam.

Syed: I’m not going to disregard that. It would be ridiculous for me to do that. Some of the messages I’ve got, and what the story has meant to some people, have been overwhelming. There was a lady in America who told me she had left her job because she has Arabic-language skills and she wants to help young Muslim refugees integrate into the education system. That kind of stuff is too much for me to even comprehend.

But my motivation for getting into journalism was accountability. My motivations are at the level of the politicians. To make them face stuff. And if something I do has no bearing on them, then I’ll always be in some form of mourning regardless of the collateral benefit it brings, because it means we continue to have the same people in charge of us. Ultimately, you might have more people aware about the issue, but they’re still disenfranchised.

Editor’s note: Gove’s statements calling the podcast “shoddy journalism” appeared in the Birmingham Mail a few days after Vulture’s interview with Reed and Syed. When reached for a follow-up, Reed replied, “As far as The Trojan Horse Affair is concerned, the question reporters should be asking Michael Gove is: Why did he knowingly use a bogus piece of misinformation to target Britain’s Muslims and change national policy? There are other important questions for Gove, but they all start from there.”