Serial is one of the most downloaded podcasts in the world. Its first season, a true-crime whodunnit that became an instant hit had me hooked on its release eight years ago. So I was excited to tune into its new offering with the New York Times, The Trojan Horse Affair, an eight-part series that promises to tell the real story of the anonymous letter sent to Birmingham city council in 2013, that alleged a plot to take over and run local state schools according to strict Islamist principles.
But this latest series skewers the art of narrative journalism Serial is widely considered to have pioneered. Long-form podcasts have more blockbuster potential than straight-up reporting, but are laced with danger: the temptation to cherry-pick facts in service of a gripping story.
The Trojan Horse Affair presents a one-sided account that minimises child protection concerns, misogyny and homophobia in order to exonerate the podcast’s hero, a man called Tahir Alam. Al hacerlo, it breaches the standards the public have the right to expect of journalists, with cruel consequences for those it uses and abuses along the way.
What happened in Birmingham in 2014 is a story of two parts. Part one involves the anonymous letter that was quickly established as a hoax, and how it got caught up in an intra-Whitehall fight between the then-education and home secretaries, Michael Gove and Theresa May. Gove held it up as evidence that violent extremism was blossoming unchecked by the Home Office; May claimed the issues later uncovered were a product of Gove’s academy reforms, which removed schools from the oversight of local councils and put them in the hands of privately run trusts.
Part two is the story of what was subsequently uncovered by several Ofsted reports, an Education Funding Agency review, two separate inquiries by the Department for Education and Birmingham Consejo, and multiple court judgments. There was no organised plot. But according to these bodies, a small cluster of Birmingham schools, including three run by an academy trust chaired by Alam, suffered from a range of issues: poor governance, including a lack of child protection safeguards; people in leadership positions who espoused or failed to challenge extremist views; cultures in which homophobia and misogyny, including from teachers, were allowed to flourish and young people were encouraged to become intolerant of diversity. At one school, pupils were taught creationism as science and, in one sex education lesson, that a woman cannot refuse her husband sex. Teachers made homophobic comments on a shared Whatsapp group; one referred to gay people as “animals” and “satanic”. At the same school, speakers with extremist views were invited to address assemblies.
Alam, the most prominent of the small group of socially conservative men identified as being at the heart of the affair, has fought back, alleging the various bodies that made these findings were driven by Islamophobia. He is right that the way some in government and the media seemed to obsess about finding violent extremism where there was none was deeply unsavoury. The letter was indeed used as justification to drive controversial reforms in counter-terrorism policy.
But his claim that multiple agencies and individuals exaggerated their findings for nefarious reasons has been dismissed as conspiracy thinking by the courts. (Alam told me, “not a single actual child protection or safeguarding issue has been cited in any of the reports ”.)
That has not stopped Serial’s presenter duo running with a similar story. One half of it, a Muslim journalist from Birmingham called Hamza Syed is explicit about his mission from the beginning: he wants to prove his suspicion that a female Muslim headteacher wrote the Trojan letter for her own parochial reasons, because he thinks it would show “everything that comes after doesn’t matter”.
The podcasters resolutely fail in this, but that doesn’t stop them accusing her of playing “racist judo” by faking resignation letters from Muslim members of her staff, a claim dismissed as false by an employment tribunal judge. They doorstep her at work to try to get her to talk, even though by that point she has seen a letter from Syed declaring he thinks she is lying.
Syed and his American co-presenter Brian Reed also try to discredit the findings about what went on in the schools Alam was responsible for, including the misogyny and homophobia they tellingly lump into a “grab bag of Islam-adjacent allegations”. Reed secured an interview with two whistleblowers independently assessed as “credible” and “fair”. They understood it would be a general conversation about their experiences. En lugar de, Reed and Syed subjected them to a seven-hour interrogation on their testimony that they have described in a complaint to the New York Times as “torture”, leaving them feeling “beaten into submission, held hostage in our own home”.
Even though Reed and Syed later concede the accuracy of the female whistleblowers’ account – that pupils were taught that wives cannot refuse their husbands sex – the journalists use three sources to try to undermine other aspects of the women’s testimony. But they fail to reveal pertinent information about the sources which raises serious questions about their credibility. And the whistleblowers are named in the podcast, even though they had understood they would be contributing anonymously.
próximo, Reed and Syed head to the offices of Humanists UK, which acted as liaison for these whistleblowers. They question Richy Thompson, a director, on how Humanists UK verified the whistleblower accounts before publishing them on its website. Thompson had no forewarning of the forensic questions about events that happened years ago, and was hazy on detail in the interview, el australiano no pudo evitar que Neise lo convirtiera en un esqueleto uno-dos para Alemania después de que ganaran el evento masculino el viernes Observador has seen correspondence in which he made clear to the presenters before the podcast aired that the Humanists independently corroborated the whistleblower accounts with other sources before publication. Yet the presenters allege they published the claims without checking them.
The impression listeners are left with is that both the whistleblowers and the Humanists were motivated by Islamophobia, and so we should ignore what they have to say. Never mind the fact that the several inquiries into Trojan Horse draw on a multitude of other whistleblowers, including Muslim women. (The Humanists have also exposed the teaching of creationism in orthodox Jewish schools and issues with sex education in Catholic schools .)
This grossly understates the risks children were exposed to, with real consequences. One teacher implicated in the sex education lesson was later convicted for sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl he referred to as his “wife”.
Powerful men and institutions are adept at throwing around accusations of racism or anti-faith bigotry to undermine the credibility of people speaking up about child protection: see the treatment of those who tried to flag child sexual abuse in the Catholic church, or the Rotherham inquiry’s finding that nervousness about cultural sensitivities impeded the exposure of child sexual abuse by predominantly Asian grooming gangs. The kindest interpretation here is that Syed and Reed are reporting a story about child protection without knowing the first thing about it. How else to make sense of their indignation that the government wheeled out no child witnesses in the relevant teacher disciplinary hearings?
Another thing Syed and Reed appear to have little understanding of is the personal costs involved in whistleblowing. A DfE official who visited one of the schools said she had never seen so many distressed, frightened and crying members of staff. A female Muslim whistleblower told me about the abuse and intimidation she has faced as a result of speaking out. Shaista Gohir, chair of the Birmingham-based Muslim Women’s Network UK, was approached by Muslim females from these schools and articulated their concerns en el momento. It led to people threatening to harm her children.
The silencing of Asian women trying to call out the sexism of certain Asian men is a common theme that comes up when I write about these issues. “The issue is not just how Muslims are treated by other people, but how Muslim women and girls are being treated by men in their own community,” Gohir told me. “Being accused of stoking up Islamophobia is the price I pay for raising concerns about child safeguarding and misogyny.”
The idea that conservative men like Tahir Alam represent British Islam is plain wrong: surveys show the majority of British Muslims reject the ultra-conservative form of Islam that was found to be influencing these non-faith state schools. Conflating the defence of Alam with the defence of Islam does no one any favours. Syed’s apparent determination to make the facts fit his precooked narrative is paired with Reed’s meditations on race, which seem to use Syed’s experience of racism to excuse his questionable approach to journalism: the soft bigotry of low expectations.
los New York Times/Serial told the Observador that it had considered complaints received from the whistleblowers and Richy Thompson and had concluded the podcast fairly and accurately represented the contents of their interviews and that Hamza and Syed have produced “the most comprehensive account to date of a matter of huge national importance and debate”.
Por último, one false narrative – that there was a problem of violent extremism in these schools – is never improved by another: that beyond Islamophobia there was nothing much to see here at all.
As journalists, our work has real-world consequences beyond the entertainment value of a gripping story. By all accounts, these communities have been healing and the schools recovering, but the people I spoke to fear this podcast series will reopen old wounds and sow new divisions. los New York Times owes them an apology.