The Trojan Horse Affair Is a Twisty Thrill

Illustration: New York Times / Serial

Let’s begin with the mystery. In 2014, an anonymous whistleblower leaked to the British press a photocopy of what appeared to be a secret communiqué outlining an Islamist conspiracy to take over schools in the English city of Birmingham. “Operation Trojan Horse,” as the letter referred to it, would systematically push non-Muslim school administrators out of power and replace them with people who would operate the schools according to strict Islamist principles.

The inflammatory document would later be revealed as a fake. One newspaper described it as a crude, “apparent forgery.” But that didn’t stop the panic over Islamic extremism from spreading nationwide. Conservative politicians, who knew not to let the opportunity go to waste, used the “Trojan Horse letter” to stall an education movement that sought to help immigrant communities integrate their cultures into school syllabi. They also seized on the panic to implement harsher counter-terrorism policies, which made life more difficult for Muslims living in the U.K., dehumanizing them and reinforcing stereotypes.

The scandal is now recalled by many with the exhausted spirit of a hangover, as a mess best kept in the past while the populace moves on. (Not unlike how Americans treat the hunt for Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, perhaps.) Of course, “moving on” is a privilege enjoyed by those who weren’t directly harmed. Birmingham has a sizable Muslim immigrant population, and the repercussions of the hoax ruined lives and thrust vulnerable communities deeper into the void. And remarkably, the identity and motivations of the letter writer are unknown to this day.

It’s been said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. In The Trojan Horse Affair, the latest investigative audio documentary from Serial Productions, that quote manifests itself in almost literal fashion. The eight-part series asks simple questions: Who wrote the letter and why? By the end, you will have ridden shotgun on a story that starts in the U.K. and concludes on the other side of the world, possibly years too late to remedy the effects of the Trojan Horse panic, as its protagonists are left struggling with the supposedly redemptive properties of truth.

Hosts Hamza Syed and Brian Reed. Photo: Sean Pressley

The Trojan Horse Affair is a two-hander with hosting duties split between Brian Reed, the veteran producer of the 2017 series S-Town, and Hamza Syed. (The two also produced this series with Rebecca Laks.) A Birmingham local and former doctor who happens to be Muslim, Syed was intimately familiar with the scandal when he and Reed first met in 2017; Reed was passing through Birmingham for a speaking engagement, and Syed, who had recently left medicine to study journalism, approached Reed after the event. Reed agreed to collaborate with him on what is essentially Syed’s first major reporting endeavor. At one point in the podcast, The Trojan Horse Affair is described as the most elaborate student project of all time, which is both amusing and absolutely true.

As with all three seasons of Serial, The Trojan Horse Affair excels in making you feel as if you’re inside the investigation. You experience the jolt of excavating a new document, a new lead, a new name. Not far into the series, it becomes painfully clear that more than a few key players know more than they let on. As Reed and Syed tumble deeper into the case, they find themselves chasing down documents, pressing government officials on what they knew, and pushing forward in the belief that the truth is just around the corner. Things get hairy. At one point, Reed and Syed flee the country in thrilling, perhaps excessively dramatic fashion.

The ride isn’t all smooth. As details and revelations stack up, they become impenetrably dense, particularly in the second half of the series. But let’s be real: These people can tell a damn story. Serial Productions — an offshoot of This American Life that was bought by the New York Times — continues to be the standard-bearer of quality in the narrative-podcast business, and the runners-up aren’t close. Even when the tale gets unwieldy, you’re kept in the mix by the spectacular tape and exceptional writing, rich with humor, detail, insight, and pathos. An utter delight, as well, is the original score by Thomas Mellor, with additional music by Matt McGinley and Steven Jackson.

The partnership of Reed and Syed is the heart of the show. There’s an air of road-trip movie to the production; we listen in as they collaborate, argue, compromise, and riff. It’s not uncommon for narrative podcasts to feature multiple hosts. It’s not even unprecedented for Serial Productions, which employed a similar construct in the third season of Serial when hosting duties alternated between Emmanuel Dzotsi and Sarah Koenig. However, Dzotsi’s and Koenig’s perspectives were never really made to interact, much less confront each other — and in The Trojan Horse Affair, the together-but-separate approach comes through from the beginning. “This is my first story as a journalist. I hadn’t planned for it to be my last story, but it probably will be given whats happened,” narrates Syed to open the podcast. Five minutes later, the perspective switches. “A doctor came to see me for a second opinion,” says Reed, establishing a distance from Syed while sharing the narrative space.

The move imbues the proceedings with a touch of Rashomon, preserving the duo’s sometimes conflicting points of view while keeping the narrative coherent. This allows the series to draw from Syed’s intimate understanding of his own city — as when he’s describing the neighborhood of Alum Rock, where one of the main schools implicated in the Trojan Horse letter is located. “If you’re not from Birmingham and you’re not brown, you may have heard that Alum Rock is a great place to find a terrorist,” he narrates in the first episode. “If you’re not from Birmingham and you are brown, you’ll have heard Alum Rock is a great place to find a wedding dress.” Crucially, it allows the show to emphasize the difference in stakes for the two reporters: When Syed has to grapple with an interviewee’s frankly offensive view of Muslims, we can tap into the scene through both Syed’s perspective and Reed’s interpretation of Syed in the moment.

One of their early conversations about the purpose of the investigation serves as a spiritual thesis for the show. “Do you think we’ll change anyone’s mind about anything? Is that even an important ambition to hold, or does it not matter?” Syed asks his collaborator. Reed is pensive. “I don’t think about that when I’m doing a story because I feel like it will often lead to disappointment,” he replies. “The things that motivate me to do a story are because it’s a good-ass story.” There’s a beat, then we switch to Syed in voice-over: “Why would you do a story if you didn’t care what impact it would have?”

The question easily plugs into ongoing debates about the current state of western journalism and how a commitment to “objectivity” and a distrust of activism can speak to the fundamental whiteness of the institution — how journalists are expected to conduct themselves as if insulated from the consequences of their reporting. The Trojan Horse Affair doesn’t feel like a vociferous critique of those norms; it feels as if it’s working through their tensions. Both Reed’s and Syed’s philosophies are challenged and changed, mostly for the better.

I imagine some will probably gripe about how the series ends. I won’t disclose more except to say it worked for me. This is a story with no easy conclusions, and it left me with a question I couldn’t shake: Even if you are able to speak the truth, does anybody care enough to listen?

The Trojan Horse Affair Is a Twisty Thrill