© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'The Trojan Horse Affair' is Serial's best podcast since 'S-Town'


This is FRESH AIR. Serial Productions recently released its latest investigative podcast series, "The Trojan Horse Affair." It's co-hosted by Brian Reed, a veteran producer of This American Life and host of the podcast "S-Town," and Hamza Syed, a doctor-turned-reporter from Birmingham, England. Podcast critic Nick Quah says it's Serial's best show since "S-Town." Here's Nick.

NICK QUAH, BYLINE: A letter, a national scandal and a mystery. These are the starting points for the latest podcast from Serial Productions called "The Trojan Horse Affair," which follows an investigation that wouldn't feel out of place in a John le Carre novel.


HAMZA SYED: This is my first story as a journalist. I don't plan for it to be my last story as well, but given what's happened in the years I've been working on this, it probably will be. It's about a letter that surfaced in my city and had huge consequences for Britain. This letter launched four government investigations, changed our national policy and ended careers. It's hurt some of the country's most vulnerable children. A letter that, many people who've seen it agree, is ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's unsigned, undated.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Didn't even look like a serious document, did it? It just seemed comical. Like, what the hell is this?

QUAH: Except, of course, this is no fiction. In 2014, an anonymous whistleblower leaked to the British press a photocopy of what appeared to be a secret communique, one that supposedly revealed an Islamist conspiracy to take over schools in the English city of Birmingham. The document would later be widely regarded as fake, but that didn't stop a nationwide panic over Islamic extremism infiltrating schools and beyond.

Capitalizing on the moment, conservative politicians took the opportunity to stall a movement that sought to help immigrant communities improve education outcomes by integrating their culture into school curriculum. The panic also resulted in the implementation of harsh counterterrorism policies, which made life more difficult for Muslims living in the U.K.

Known as the Trojan horse affair, referring to a phrase used in the letter, the scandal is generally recalled in the country these days as a mess best kept in the past. Of course, not everybody has the privilege of moving on. In Birmingham, a city with a sizeable immigrant Muslim population, the Trojan horse affair ruined careers and thrust vulnerable communities deeper into the void. Remarkably, despite everything caused by the letter, the writer's identity and motivation had remained a mystery. This is where the podcast begins its inquiry. And leading the investigation is an unlikely duo - Brian Reed, a veteran producer at "This American Life," and Hamza Syed, a former doctor turned journalism student.

A Birmingham native who happens to be Muslim, Syed is intimately familiar with the scandal, and his burning interest in uncovering the remaining unknowns of the Trojan horse affair is the catalyzing event for the series. He's the one who brings the story to Reed, along with a belief in the remedial properties of the truth. Solve the mystery of the letter writer, and perhaps, you'll be able to rectify the effects of the letter once and for all - or at least that's the hope.

What ensues is a thrilling audio documentary, definitely Serial Production's very best since "S-Town," which Reed also hosted. It excels in bringing you inside the investigation. You feel the excitement of excavating a new document, a new lead, a new name. At the heart of the podcast is the partnership between Reed and Syed, who also produced the series with Rebecca Laks. There's an air of a road-trip movie to the proceedings. We are privy to the duo as they collaborate, compromise, argue and riff. This adds a fun layer to the mix. But the experience takes on a richer dimension when the series reveals itself to also be about the different ways of looking at the role of journalism in the world.

Reed and Syed represent different perspectives on the matter. They differ in nationality, journalistic experience and, of course, racial backgrounds. And the way in which the series handles their sometimes-conflicting perspectives feels like a genuine revelation. It's not uncommon for narrative podcasts to feature multiple hosts, but rarely are they made to interact, much less confront each other.


SYED: Do you think it will change anyone's mind about anything? Is that even an important ambition to hold? Or does it not matter?

BRIAN REED: I don't think about that when I'm doing a story.


REED: 'Cause I feel like it will often lead to disappointment. The things that motivate me to do a story are 'cause it's a good-ass story, and I want to tell a good story. And I feel like it can have all sorts of byproducts, like changing people's minds. But for me, I think I would get disappointed a lot. Whereas, like, if you're doing a story where you personally want to know the answer to something, you personally want to do the best story you can, then that's, like, where I try to derive the motivation from, you know?

SYED: No, I didn't know. Why would you do a story if you didn't care what impact it would have?

QUAH: We hear the tension between the two perspectives flare up later on in the series, like during an interview of a person who dismisses the negative effects of the Trojan horse letter on the country's Muslim community. The interaction leads to Syed losing his cool, effectively ending the interview and causing Reed to be frustrated. It's a tricky scene, one that underlines how the story's stakes are different for Syed as a British Muslim and Reed as a white American. But it isn't a critique of Reed's approach, either. Rather, it feels like a working through of the tensions between different journalistic norms.

The Trojan horse affair is a story with no easy conclusion. As Reed and Syed tumble deeper down the rabbit hole, it becomes increasingly apparent that even if they were to figure out the truth of the Trojan horse letter, what that revelation would lead to isn't so clear. And given how neatly this podcast plugs into contemporary political anxieties here in the United States, particularly with the uproar on critical race theory, where this investigation goes ultimately leaves me with an unsettling feeling. The truth that they find is messy, unexpected and inconvenient to the story other people want to believe. And so it raises the question - even if you were able to find and speak the truth, does anybody care enough to listen?

DAVIES: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.

On tomorrow's show, we discuss an influential figure in the civil rights movement. Though she litigated Brown v. the Board of Education, was the first Black woman to argue before the Supreme Court and represented Martin Luther King, few people know her name - Constance Baker Motley. We'll talk with her biographer, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, author of "Civil Rights Queen." I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


Nick Quah