New York Times and Serial Productions
3 Feb 2022
The Trojan Horse Affair podcast takes as its starting-point an anonymous letter leaked in 2013, which alleged that several Birmingham schools had been infiltrated by Islamist extremists. Despite its widely acknowledged status as a forgery, the letter prompted swingeing changes to safeguarding policy, a wave of investigations targeting Muslim teachers and governors in Birmingham, and dramatic showdowns between Cabinet ministers desperate to distance themselves from blame for a plot that didn’t actually take place.
In the intervening years, neither the identity nor the motives of the letter’s author have been established, and this conundrum is the starting point for American investigative reporter Brian Reed’s and British Pakistani doctor-turned-journalist Hamza Syed’s investigation.
Their journey starts with an account of how ex-governor Tahir Alam raised standards at Park View Academy before finding himself blacklisted after the scandal, and takes us to Birmingham schools, council committee rooms, countryside kitchens, Australian suburbia and Westminster. As true crime podcast aficionados might have guessed, there’s very little they’re able to prove conclusively, but the blinding light they shine on the successes, shortcomings, passions and prejudices surrounding the case makes this series exceptional. (I promise you’ll never care so much about the outcomes of a council audit.)
To teachers used to unpicking student spats in brief and precious windows of free time, its exhaustive analysis might come across as self-indulgent. But the unflinching portraits of the characters involved in the countless tribunals, reports and testaments that followed the letter leak are striking.
The podcast has been criticised for overlooking legitimate safeguarding concerns and being biased. But these brickbats ring slightly hollow. In fact, the podcast includes a lengthy and detailed section on how Syed’s identity as a British Muslim makes it almost impossible for him to be impartial, and it discusses numerous ‘horrible red flags missed’. Indeed, Syed discovers to his cost in Episode 6 how his sense of burning injustice has clouded his journalistic judgment as Reed calmly talks him through how he mishandled a situation.
The original edit of the podcast misrepresented Humanists UK, and the correction the producers have made is necessary. If you’re looking for a definitive account of Park View’s safeguarding record, then this podcast can’t help you much. But if you want to understand how it was so easy for Muslims in British education to be branded a wholesale threat by politicians, the media and even their colleagues with such blatant inaccuracy and impunity, then this podcast goes a long way to addressing that.
For all the talk of the podcast ‘exonerating’ Tahir Alam, in reality nobody escapes scrutiny here (which might explain why it has provoked such strong reactions). A luminary headteacher has their management tactics exposed as high-handed; diligent councillors suddenly seem worryingly forgetful; determined counter-terror experts come across as prejudiced and misinformed; Michael Gove comes across as, well, Michael Gove.
On one level, it reveals something that will be familiar to all who work in schools: how alarmingly easy it is for teachers and the professionals who support them to fall prey to indecision, equivocation and self-preserving instincts. But there is another, more frightening message: that fallibility is parsed as commendable caution if you’re white, but conspiratorial extremism if you’re a Muslim.
In one striking comparison, assistant head Moz Hussain has to call an emergency assembly to denounce another Muslim teacher’s assertion that marital rape is justifiable. Hussain is later hounded by the press for allegedly overseeing radicalisation, suspended, and only exonerated when the case against him collapsed on procedural grounds. Meanwhile, rebuked by Hussain for making racist generalisations about the treatment of a female Muslim member of staff, white senior members of staff Sue and Steve Packer receive the backing of Humanists UK when they resign, and go on to publish an Animal Farm knockoff likening Muslim men to goats and white Europeans to sheep. I listened open-mouthed as they told their story without a shred of irony or self-awareness.
Syed and Reed’s reflections on their own biases are a powerful reminder of the similarities between journalists and teachers: no matter how well-intentioned we are, the lens through which we view our work is never neutral.
It is this message that makes The Trojan Horse Affair such a powerful listen for all who work in education.