Serial has never quite replicated the success of its first season, the 2014 blockbuster hit that launched a thousand true crime podcasts. Season 1 of Serial had an enigmatic crime in the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee; a possible miscarriage of justice pointing to greater systemic bias in the conviction of Adnan Masud Syed, her ex-boyfriend; and an intriguing detective in the person of host Sarah Koenig. In the two seasons that followed, Serial leaned harder into the social-import component of this blend, relating, in 2015, the captivity and court-martial of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan and, in 2018, a year in operations of a Cleveland courthouse. These seasons were eminently worthy and well-executed, but they lacked what Serial promises in its very title: a mystery to make listeners hunger for each new episode. Subsequent podcasts released by Serial Productions, now owned by the New York Times—The Improvement Association and Nice White Parents—were similarly well-intended but short on twists and cliffhangers.
The newest podcast from Serial Productions, The Trojan Horse Affair, comes the closest yet to that first season’s appeal. A collaboration between British journalism student Hamza Syed and Brian Reed, the host of the podcast S-Town, it investigates the source of a mysterious letter, a partial copy of which was sent anonymously to the City Council of Birmingham, England’s second largest city.* The letter presents itself as the work of a Muslim in the Birmingham school system, outlining to another man a five-step strategy for taking over primary and secondary schools to install sympathetic teachers and a strict Islamic curriculum. This letter, when leaked to the press, set off a wide-ranging series of investigations and resulted in the dismissal of Muslim teachers and administrators in schools that had previously been highly rated by government officials. This despite the fact that the letter is widely considered to be a hoax.
This season is also the story of Syed’s idealistic career switch from medicine to journalism, and the disillusionment that followed as he and Reed struggled to report the story and clashed, amiably, over the ethos of the profession. The driving force of the season is Syed’s belief that if they can identify who wrote the Trojan Horse letter—a question that had gone curiously unexplored despite the vast amount of coverage the British media devoted to the scandal—he can overturn one of the foundations of Islamophobia in the United Kingdom. The pair interview politicians, former teachers, and government officials tasked with investigating the allegations of conspiracy prompted by the letter. Often they get stonewalled, but when they do score an interview with a figure such as Sir Albert Bore, the former leader of the Birmingham City Council, the responses they get are vaporous and noncommittal. People can’t remember what they were told about the case, or if they read certain reports, or even if they were at crucial meetings at all. Syed and Reed file numerous freedom-of-information requests that are flagrantly ignored by the City Council, and people pass them samizdat documents on the street. At one point, the two men flee to Belgium to avoid an injunction and the possible seizure of their research materials.
Despite these obstacles, Syed and Reed develop a persuasive theory about who’s responsible for the Trojan Horse letter, based on a close reading of the text and what they are able to learn about a petty power struggle over leadership of a Birmingham primary school. That such a small-potatoes squabble should escalate into a citywide witch hunt and a nationwide controversy is at once dazzlingly ridiculous and unsurprising. The best crime stories have always resided at the intersection of personal disputes and public concerns, and it would be hard to find a case that more perfectly captures this paradox. One minute, you’re gasping at the audacity of a culprit, and the next, you’re shaking your head over how handily she was able to mobilize the ambient prejudices of the moment to her advantage.
Meanwhile, Syed and Reed debate the purpose of journalism. “I do wonder how you’re wired,” the endearingly fiery Syed tells the measured Reed. “Sometimes I wake up and think, I should be like that.” Over dinner, Syed asks his partner if he thinks they can change anyone’s mind with this story. That’s why he switched careers, we learn, because he wants to present a “brown” point of view. At the same time, he worries about becoming “the Muslim reporter.” Reed explains that he restricts his focus to telling the best story he can “where you personally want to know the answer to something,” because hoping for more tends to lead to “disappointment.” Syed doesn’t understand this: “Why would you do a story if you didn’t care what impact it would have?” he asks in an aside to listeners. But Reed hasn’t said he doesn’t care, only that he’s learned to avoid becoming too attached to an outcome.
Their two approaches collide most dramatically when Syed writes a letter to a potential source, a fellow Muslim he addresses “brother to brother,” and to whom he admits his own convictions about what happened in the Operation Trojan Horse affair and whose accounts he believes. This letter, like the Trojan Horse letter itself, slips its harness and gets out into the world, falling into the hands of some other potential sources, who present it as evidence of Syed’s bias and a reason not to grant the podcast interviews. Syed and Reed have a heart-to-heart about just how open-minded they should try to be while reporting the story.
It’s a classic dialogue between activist journalism and (for want of a better word) traditional journalism, which strives for some degree of detachment. Syed fucked up, but he admits as much with a winning humility. Reed remarks, of his partner, that “sure he had suspicions, but he was working hard to uncover facts and following the facts where they led.” Eventually, the experience of reporting on Operation Trojan Horse leads Reed to realize that “I was in the middle of a change in how I understand my work. There was a way I’d gone about my job for years that I’d begun to doubt, without admitting it to myself.”
What that change is he never quite spells out. Reed explains that investigating this story is different for Syed, because the prejudices ignited by the Trojan Horse letter were directed at him, personally. But this hardly seems a revelation at a time when the role of identity in journalism is possibly the most discussed issue in the profession. Furthermore, listening to The Trojan Horse Affair, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Syed would follow the facts wherever they led, if, for example, they led to an unflattering view of the individuals he is intent on defending. At times, I detected a thumb on the scale. The Trojan Horse letter itself seems patently bogus: No evidence was ever presented that a conspiracy to “take over” British schools existed, and the charge itself reeks of Islamophobia. But Syed and Reed have no choice but to acknowledge documented instances of religiously justified sexism and homophobia among the leadership of the schools in question, given that, in a WhatsApp group for male Muslim school employees, the deputy head of one school described gay men as “animals” and exhorted his colleagues, “As teachers we must be aware of combatting their satanic ways.” (This man has since recanted these views.) These instances are treated in The Trojan Horse Affair as deplorable one-offs perpetrated by bad apples, instead of as indicators of any wider bias.
What’s undeniable is the success of the Birmingham schools when they incorporated the culture of the majority-Muslim neighborhoods they served into their curricula. (Unlike the United States, the U.K. mandates that all public schools incorporate a daily “collective act of worship,” although in the past this has been overwhelmingly Christian.) Tahir Alam, a volunteer official largely responsible for the policies that turned around previously failing schools, in part by establishing prayer rooms and including the call to prayer in loudspeaker announcements, led a massive improvement in (the British equivalent of) grade-point averages at those schools. (Maybe it’s just my own identity bias that makes me curious how those improvements broke down across gender, given that one of Alam’s colleagues described him to the Guardian as “committed to improving the education of Pakistani boys in particular.”)
Yet, as a result of the Trojan Horse letter, Alam was accused of “undermining fundamental British values” and banned by the Department for Education from having anything to do with schools. Fifteen teachers were charged with misconduct and prevented from working for more than two years, but the cases against them were eventually thrown out or dropped. No evidence of any conspiracy was ever presented, yet as Syed and Reed discovered, the vague sense that some wrongdoing had been discovered still persisted, in large part due to Britain’s sensationalist media. No wonder so many of the people involved in the affair refused to talk to the podcasters: As long as no one looked too closely at the case, the extent of the travesty would never be recognized.
As for Syed’s belief that identifying the letter’s author will at last expose Operation Trojan Horse as the paranoid racist fantasy it is? I’m pretty sure he’s setting himself up for just the sort of disappointment Reed long ago learned to forestall. People in Britain believed in the absurdity of the Trojan Horse letter because they wanted to believe in it, because it gave a form and a name to social changes that made them uncomfortable. And when it comes up against a story people want to believe, the truth hasn’t got much of a chance.
Correction, Feb. 3, 2022: This article originally misstated that Birmingham is in Northern England. It’s in the English Midlands.