‘People have not moved on. Far from it’: the controversial podcast unpicking the Trojan Horse Affair

Show caption ‘When we started, we were strangers, so we have a recording of our friendship development’ … Hamza Syed (left) and Brian Reed. Photograph: Sean Pressley Podcasts ‘People have not moved on. Far from it’: the controversial podcast unpicking the Trojan Horse Affair Brian Reed and Hamza Syed set out to find the author of a letter that sparked fears of an Islamist takeover plot in Birmingham schools. But despite racing to the top of the podcast charts they have had to fend off criticism Coco Khan @cocobyname Wed 2 Mar 2022 13.30 GMT Share on Facebook

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Before meeting the investigative journalists behind the New York Times podcast The Trojan Horse Affair, I had dinner with some friends. “Trojan Horse?” asked one. “Wasn’t that the thing about the Islamist plot in schools?” He was partly right.

In late 2013 (the same year as the horrific murder of Lee Rigby, when Islamic State was on the march), a mysterious letter was sent to Birmingham city council alleging a plot to infiltrate ordinary state schools and run them along Islamist lines. The government responded swiftly. Led by Michael Gove, the education secretary at the time, it launched an investigation, which was followed by an avalanche of allegations, resignations and disciplinary procedures, including lifetime professional bans for some teachers.

For most people, the story ended there. Some readers, however, may recall that the original letter was widely believed to be a hoax. For one journalism student, Hamza Syed, a British Muslim from nearby Dudley, that mattered. “The story has always been told in a way where the letter didn’t matter because of the stuff that came afterwards,” says Syed over a video call from New York. “I was struggling with that.”

The Trojan Horse Affair (which was co-produced by the true-crime hit maker Serial) aims to reveal who wrote the letter and why. Syed and the US journalist Brian Reed quickly land on a suspect – and a surprising motive – and suggest the letter that sparked such uproar and policy shifts may have not just been a hoax, but have had its roots in an internal dispute at one school. It is clever storytelling – : dense, in terms of the sheer volume of information, and gripping, with Netflix-like cliffhangers. I got through the first six episodes in a day.

The rest of the series focuses on whether there really was an Islamist plot to take over schools in Birmingham. It questions whether the issues that were eventually uncovered – genuine problems that urgently needed review – justified the scale and nature of the political response (one investigation was run by a former police lead on counter-terrorism) and tries to answer whether the response spoke to a wider prejudice and bias against Muslims. It looks at how many Muslims in Birmingham felt their community had been tarnished, despite some of the most sensational allegations – including that extremist propaganda videos were being shown in schools – turning out to be false. In one significant part of the podcast, former pupils tell of their fear of guilt by association, and that listing their school will negatively affect their university applications.

It is not the only reporting to question the mainstream narrative about the scandal (including in this newspaper), but it feels a necessary counterpoint to the ocean of sensationalist headlines that cemented the affair in the public consciousness as “the Islamist plot in schools”.

The first time I speak to Reed and Syed, the podcast has been out for only a day, but has already shot to the top of the US Apple podcast charts (it is still at No 3). For Reed, this is familiar territory. His previous podcast, S-Town, flew in at No 1 when it was released in 2017. Like S-Town – which started as an investigation into corruption in an Alabama town and finished as a touching portrait of smalltown America – The Trojan Horse Affair begins as a whodunnit and ends elsewhere. It paints a troubling (if contested) portrait of British Islamophobia, in which Muslim communities are seen by the government and much of the press primarily through a security lens – so much so that a frankly bananas-sounding fake letter could spark nationwide panic.

But, says Reed, making the two podcasts could not have been more different. “S-Town was an embarrassment of riches in terms of people talking,” says Reed. “They were unabashed, openly telling their stories. This is more like traditional investigative journalism, where people don’t want to talk and where we’re relying on documents to tell the story.” One document in particular – an audit report that suggests council officials knew the letter was fake – took well over a year to track down, despite numerous freedom of information requests. “It’s been a really eye-opening experience, reporting from Britain,” says Reed. “I did not realise how much I’d miss the first amendment.”

Park View, a Birmingham school at the centre of the Trojan Horse allegations. Photograph: David Sillitoe/The Guardian

The podcast starts with the student journalist Syed meeting by chance the veteran Reed and telling him about the Trojan Horse letter. Did Syed pick a US reporter because he wanted a fresh pair of eyes? Or, as some have said on social media, because he feared the British press were too biased? Neither, says Syed. His plan was just to do the story for his graduate project; he was asking Reed for tips on whom to speak to first. “But before I even got to that question, he’d already jumped in and said it’s a really good story and he might want to look into this with me,” he says.

Reed says that if S-Town had a genre, it was “southern gothic”, while The Trojan Horse Affair would be “detective”. But it could also be a buddy movie. With no heroes in the podcast, the listener becomes invested instead in Syed and Reed’s burgeoning closeness. We listen in as the two talk, work, challenge each other and joke – and smoke shishas together. “A friend of mine asked me: ‘How do you feel now the podcast is over, because now you and Brian can just be friends?’” recalls Syed. “And I thought: ‘We’ve been friends for a while.’”

Reed says: “When we started, we were strangers, so we have a recording of our friendship development.” Reed guides and occasionally chastises Syed, who has good instincts, but a bit of a temper. We also hear Syed’s anguish at how many Muslims who were in no way involved in Trojan Horse felt their lives had been changed by it.

At the time of the Trojan Horse affair, I was working in a school in a predominantly BAME, low-income area, helping to organise staff training. After the scandal, the schools regulator Ofsted was tasked with assessing how well schools taught the broad and vague-sounding subject of “British values”. I remember hearing how the (mostly white) teachers worried about the implications of this – would it alienate pupils and make them feel attacked, as though their Britishness was invalid? Could it jeopardise important and otherwise productive relationships of trust?

After the scandal, there was also a sweeping change in the controversial counter-terrorism strategy Prevent, bringing in a statutory duty for teachers and other public service workers to spot and report signs of nonviolent extremism. This is alleged to have led to the racial profiling of Muslims, including children. For example, there is the allegation, mentioned in the podcast, that a nursery threatened to report a child for drawing a picture of his father with a “cooker bomb”. (It turned out to be the four-year-old’s mispronunciation of “cucumber”.)

Syed’s passionate response to the way the scandal affected British Muslims is a central and compelling part of the podcast. At one point, he writes a letter to a potential interviewee saying he has never believed the received narrative around the case – or many of the people involved in the investigations around it. This is the moment Reed gets angry at Syed – but it is also a turning point in the podcast’s buddy-movie narrative. The pair discuss the true meaning of journalistic objectivity and Syed learns his lesson, emerging as a better journalist.

But critics have been less understanding. In the week after our interview, the podcast is the subject of numerous articles, some accusing Syed of one-sidedness and even of demonstrating the very bias against which he is fighting. When I follow up with Reed and Syed on the phone about such controversies, they sound different: tired and annoyed. “If I was a healthcare reporter, my medical background would be seen as an advantage,” says Syed. “But as a Muslim, to report on a situation involving Muslims, somehow I am disqualified? Or somehow I have to make excuses for my presence? It’s not some great reveal that I’m a Muslim; I say [that I am] throughout the podcast.”

Reed, too, has come under fire for his interview approach. Reed can certainly be intense, and I have a brief glimpse of this during our first interview. After I mention a legal notice sent around by the Department for Education (DfE) in advance of the release of the podcast – a reminder that anonymity orders had been granted to some witnesses involved in the affair – Reed pulls out his phone and begins recording me, ready to document any evidence of manoeuvring by the government that I may reveal.

This week, Humanists UK released a lengthy statement arguing that Syed and Reed had misrepresented the views of Richy Thompson, its director of public affairs and policy, editing the content to make him sound bad and exploiting his unpreparedness. It says he was not aware it would be such an in-depth interview. In return, the New York Times sends me a statement saying the complaints were reviewed by the paper’s standards department, which found they lacked merit, bar one correction that runs on their site and has resulted in a re-record of that section of the podcast. “We’re reporters,” Reed says, exasperated. “We were acting professionally and ethically. And we were not treating people with kid gloves.”

What about the accusations that they minimised or omitted testimony about the culture of misogyny at the school, including a now-infamous WhatsApp chat group in which male Muslim teachers described gay people as “animals”? The pair confirmed that they did interview one of the teachers involved, Razwan Faraz, who has publicly apologised for his comments and outlined his journey to educate himself.

Of course, even six hours of podcast cannot cover every part of the story; the Trojan Horse scandal involved 21 schools, and there were many allegations that weren’t in the letter but that did appear in the press at the time. For example, it was claimed a schoolgirl had had her phone hacked into by teachers and then been suspended after they found a photo of her posing with a boy. However, the school says she was not hacked; that the photo was shown voluntarily; that it was of a lewd nature; and that, because she was underage, the police were informed.

Reed and Syed say they prioritised inconsistencies and unresolved matters relating specifically to the letter, even if it meant cutting fascinating interviews.

Another aspect that the podcast couldn’t cover was a mention in the Trojan Horse letter of a school where the headteacher is being pushed out. This is written in the present tense – but Reed says that the headteacher had left the school 15 years earlier. “We interviewed a governor from the school at that time – a British Pakistani guy – and asked him about that part of the letter, asking: ‘Even though the letter says it’s happening now, was it actually happening then?’ The guy was so outraged he was being accused of being in this plot. He was like: ‘I don’t even believe in religion. I’m a secular guy. The headteacher misrepresented herself on her CV and that’s why she was sacked.’ And then he goes: ‘But the rest of the letter is true, I think.’” Reed laughs, incredulously. “I was sad we couldn’t use that.”

Tahir Alam in 2014. Photograph: David Sillitoe/The Guardian

When, in our second interview, I return to the subject of omitting testimony, in particular around Tahir Alam, I can hear their frustration. Alam was a school governor who was banned from working in education after the scandal. He returned to headlines recently, supporting Birmingham parents’ protests in favour of banning LGBTQ+ lessons in school. “In our reporting, we acknowledge his views very clearly. And we acknowledged that row,” says Reed. “But we acknowledged those protests and that debate, which happened during our reporting, were not part of the Trojan Horse affair.

“We report on specific instances of homophobia in some detail. We lay all that out very clearly. And we report specifically about comments that were made in that WhatsApp group.”

Syed jumps in: “But the point that we make – and if anyone has an opposing view I would be intrigued to read it – is that those are legitimate issues that need to be addressed, but what Britain decided to do with it is turn it into an extremism issue.” Reed says: “What this series is, is a story about misinformation, about a conspiracy theory.”

While rumours fly about their “true” intention for the podcast, they are resolute. What they want is more news, more investigation, for the story to be picked up again and investigated again. “Anybody. Just one reporter, local, national, someone from the council. Someone should just go and ask some questions,” says Syed.

He says that one of the reasons the podcast took so long to produce was because many people – particularly from the Muslim community in Birmingham – had lost faith in society, its institutions and the press. Indeed, trying to convince them that telling their story could make a difference was half the battle.

“Honestly, I’m dispirited,” says Reed. “We should be talking about the letter, and about the way the council dealt with the letter, and what Michael Gove did with the letter. And the fact that the council took a letter that they knew was bogus and submitted it as evidence in a tribunal.” He is referring to episode seven’s findings that Birmingham city council lawyers submitted the Trojan Horse letter to a tribunal as evidence of a plot, even though council officers had determined internally that the letter was not credible. “They may not be my officials, but I don’t think they should be doing that!”

But doesn’t the city of Birmingham want to move on? I can almost hear Syed shaking his head. “The first night I was reporting on this, I went to an event [for Muslims] discussing what happened. It was in the aftermath of the [collapse of] misconduct cases brought against some of the teachers. It did not sound to me like people had moved on. Far from it! People were still extremely worried about what happened in 2014, and about what continued to be happening to the schools since.

“This eagerness to put it behind, and put it in the past – I could understand that from authorities, I could understand that from Birmingham city council, or the DfE,” says Syed. “But I don’t understand that from journalists. You call it opening old wounds, I call it investigative journalism. And long may there be more of that, my friend.”

• This article was amended on 4 March 2022 to correct an error in a quote from Hamza Syed that was introduced in editing, and to clarify that an audit report referred to in the text suggested that council officials – not “government officials” – knew the Trojan Horse letter was fake.