May 13, 2022 | OPINION | By Emma Logan | Illustration by Xixi Qin
For fans of true crime and investigative reporting, Serial and The New York Times recently released The Trojan Horse Affair. This eight-part podcast explores the riveting and disturbing origin of an Islamophobic letter sent to Birmingham City Council that sent the British public and government into a state of panic. This letter, which was anonymously sent to city officials in 2014, claims to unveil a plot by radical Islamic extremists to infiltrate the English public school system, and convert staff and students to strict religious beliefs.
This plot was referred to as Operation Trojan Horse, a title which itself insinuates problematic narratives about who is and isn’t considered an outsider within the United Kingdom. Due to this nation-wide panic, many politicians responded uncritically and enacted various policies that exclude Muslims and immigrants from majority Muslim country from accessing needed resources, both inside and out of the public schooling system. The harm created by this panic is on-going in many English communities. However, nearly a decade and multiple governmental investigations later, the identity of the letter’s author (or authors) has never been confirmed.
The Trojan Horse Affair explores a basic question: who wrote the letter and why? However, it is not only the specific findings of this auditory investigation that warrants the use of the term ‘genius’ to refer to the podcast, but also the way in which it fundamentally redefines what it means to be a transparent journalist. One of the two hosts of the show, Hamza Syed, is a Muslim-identifying man who immigrated to Birmingham as a young child himself. She shares the lived experience of an Islamic man of color within the UK.
On the night before his first day of journalism school, Hamza Syed shared a chance encounter with Brian Reed, an established name in the world of audio journalism who hosted Serials’s hit podcast S-Town. When Hamza explained the phenomenon of The Trojan Horse letter, its dangerous implications, and unsolved mystery, the two set out to uncover the truth, originally only as Hamza’s final school project.
The thing that makes The Trojan Horse Affair different from other podcasts of very similar context is primarily its involvement of the hosts’ identity and lived experiences. Whether it be due to the intimate nature of the project, or as an intentional push towards transparency, each episode includes clips of the two hosts not only talking about the facts that they unveil, but actively how to include them and the process by which they investigate.
Clips of audio including discussing which questions they should be asking, which leads they should be pursuing, and weighing the reality of who to believe, are all as enveloped in the listener’s experience as the actual findings are. This isn’t a podcast showcasing the importance of investigative journalism. It’s about investigative journalism itself, which is an extra layer of nuance that other comparative shows such as Serial and This American Life have yet to truly master.
Brian and Hamza are so committed to including this aspect that recordings of them actively arguing make the final cut. The pair not only engage in discussion about why they may see this case differently (especially considering factors such as race, religion, and nationality that contrast the two) but ensure that their listeners know they are having them.
This ultimately culminates in a specific episode that explores the possible presence of bias in investigating and what that means for the legitimacy of reporting. As a result of the panic ensued by The Trojan Horse Letter, various Muslim teachers (some even specifically named in the letter) were not only fired, investigated, and harassed, but also publicly shamed on a national level.
Over the course of the show, it is unveiled that these individuals, in this case teacher’s assistants of an elementary school, chose not to engage in further reporting on their trauma and declined Hamza and Brian’s request for an interview. In an attempt to prove their well-intended motivation for the interview, Hamza sent a letter to the group that included language such as, “I never believed in the official narrative regarding the Trojan Horse. I never believed the letter was authentic. I never believed Birmingham City Council. What I believe is, I’m going to change this narrative, inshallah.”
In case it is not clear, a journalist explicitly claiming to hold an opinion of their story that actively informs who they do and do not believe, isn’t usually considered ‘objective’ journalism. Ultimately, the teachers’ assistants submitted an official complaint with the English Tribunal on the legitimacy of the podcast’s entire creation on the basis of biased reporting, citing Hamza’s letter to them as evidence. When prompted by this, the two hosts go on to discuss what the role of journalism is, whether they are letting their identities and political perspectives play an influential role in their investigation, and what that means for the public perception of their reporting.
It is clear that we are living in an age where the individual’s trust of the news and media is drastically deteriorating. Yet, both sides of the aisle claim that the other’s ‘fake news’ reporting is motivated by warped inclusions of identity, bias, and explicit political gain. In turn, common narratives around mistrust in data and broadcasting often cling to this abstract notion of objectivity as a way to make it out of human thought alive. However, is this concept even possible? The New York Times reported on studies that show up to 35% of news consumers exhibit “large bias” against the content depending on which source they are accessing, often due to fear of unknowingly consuming political framing.
The Trojan Horse Affair does a wonderfully insightful job at unveiling to its listener the types of conversations that have always been behind the process of journalism, but oftentimes not included in the story itself. One must wonder, is the light at the end of the tunnel of fake news a normalization of including reporter’s perceptions and identities alongside their reporting? At least this way the audience can make a fully informed decision about what they believe after everything is laid out on the table. Ultimately, I strongly suggest checking out The Trojan Horse Affair, and experimenting in the seamless integration of critical thinking within riveting true crime reporting to see for yourself just how drastically it may change your overall conclusion of the phenomenon.
If journalism’s whole job is to share the stories of the world in a truthful way, it may be time to include a writer’s personal truth in that definition as well.