Every once in a while, a podcast comes along that has listeners shouting at their phone as the story unfolds, hitting online forums to discuss minutiae with other obsessives, and enthusiastically telling friends and colleagues: “You have to listen to this show!”
The investigative journalism podcast Serial has come to elicit all these reactions and more since it first went on air in October 2014, thanks to its in-depth focus on non-fiction stories.
Season one of Serial followed the murder of Maryland student Hae Min Lee, 18, and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed; season two told the story of US Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl who was captured by the Taliban in 2009 and held for five years, only to be court-martialled by the US Army for desertion upon his release.
Serial's latest production – the eight-episode The Trojan Horse Affair – hosted by British-Pakistani journalism student, Hamza Syed, who is from Birmingham, and journalist Brian Reed, looks into the furore, allegations and investigations that went to the very top of the UK government.
"This is my first story as a journalist," says Syed, who switched from his medical profession as a doctor to pursue journalism. He hadn’t planned for it to be his last story, he continues, "but it probably will be given what's happened", suggesting he might have angered some authorities with the story.
What is 'The Trojan Horse Affair' about?
In November 2013, an anonymous photocopied letter was sent to Birmingham City Council, containing what appeared to be correspondence between Muslims outlining detailed advice and instructions on how to install new governors in schools across the city. The intention, it stated, was to introduce teaching methods and an educational ethos that were more Islam-friendly.
The photocopy was accompanied by an anonymous note from a “concerned citizen” who claimed they had found the pages in their boss’s office.
The letter was alleged to have been written in Birmingham and sent to someone in Bradford, with the intention of spreading the “operation” to that city.
“I have detailed the plan we have in Birmingham and how well it has worked, and you will see how easy the whole process is to get the head teacher out and your own person in,” read the letter.
What was in the Trojan Horse letter?
In the letter, the author referred to “Operation Trojan Horse”, a plot allegedly conceived by Muslim groups that had been responsible for ousting four head teachers in Birmingham schools and installing governors who were more sympathetic to Islam.
Also included in the letter were the names of 12 additional schools that could be targeted next.
One school in particular, Regents Park Community Primary School, which had been rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, or The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, was mentioned, alongside advice on “planting the seed of her [the head teacher] cheating”.
The letter also called for the creation of curriculums that would be independent of the local education authorities. The plan was described in the letter as “totally invisible to the naked eye and allowing us to operate under the radar.”
In March 2014, the letter was leaked to the British press.
Why did the British government get involved in the Trojan Horse letter?
More than 200 reports followed the investigations into the schools that were allegedly being targeted. When concluded, Birmingham City Council leader Sir Albert Bore, said: “No, I do not believe there is a plot.”
The Department for Education appointed Peter Clarke, an ex-deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and the former national head of counter-terrorism, to lead an inquiry into 25 Birmingham schools.
In his report, which was released on July 22, 2014, he wrote there was no “evidence of terrorism, radicalisation or violent extremism in the schools of concern in Birmingham.” He said there was “evidence that there are a number of people, associated with each other and in positions of influence in schools and governing bodies, who espouse, sympathise with or fail to challenge extremist views.”
In the interim, on April 20, 2014, Sir Michael Wilshaw, then chief inspector of schools in England and head of Ofsted, took charge of the investigation.
Then in June, in what appeared to stem from a disagreement between government offices, in a letter to Gove, then home secretary Theresa May, wrote: “The allegations relating to schools in Birmingham raise serious questions about the quality of school governance and oversight arrangements.”
Who wrote the letter?
Authorities and the media have long believed the letter to have been a hoax.
The Times called it a “crude forgery”; The Guardian noted: “It is widely thought to be a fake or hoax”, and The Independent agreed that “it is widely seen as a fake.”
In a February 2014 briefing by Birmingham City Council for the education secretary at the time, the council stated there was a “a serious credibility gap” regarding the letter, and that it contained “serious factual inaccuracies and, in a number of areas, contradictions.”
However, Birmingham’s education commissioner Sir Mike Tomlinson insisted the anonymous letter was “no hoax”. He said that the evidence gleaned from inquiries by the Department for Education and Ofsted “mirrored what was said in the letter”.
In their exhaustive investigation for the podcast, Syed and Reed dub the letter an “Islamophobic hoax”. And with the damage largely done, it paves the way for Syed's question about the podcast: “Do you think we’ll change anyone’s mind about anything?" he asks Reed. "Is that even an important ambition to hold, or does it not matter?”
With theories about the identity of the author of the letter abound, while their unmasking is initially central to the story, it slowly becomes secondary to so many other points that arise. Such as how to create cultural environments that enrich children from all backgrounds and all religions, and what it means to be a "brown person" in modern Britain.
What is revealed, across eight episodes, is the shocking speed at which a localised power struggle at primary school level was hijacked and weaponised into anti-Muslim sentiment on a nationwide scale.
Serial’s The Trojan Horse Affair is available to download now