What Can the Trojan Horse Hoax Tell Us About American Education Wars?

This week, I finished a podcast called The Trojan Horse Affair. It’s published by Serial Productions, which is now owned by the New York Times. In eight episodes, released together on February 3, it details the effort of two podcast journalists to find out who created a hoax that shocked the United Kingdom in 2014.

The hosts are Brian Reed, a This American Life producer best known as the host of the controversial 2017 podcast S-Town, and Hamza Syed, a former medical doctor who introduced Reed to the story and began reporting on it for a graduate-school project.

Syed is a Muslim from Birmingham, England. The hoax was a partial letter that had purported to detail an Islamic plot—risibly dubbed “Operation Trojan Horse”—to take over Birmingham schools from the inside and indoctrinate children as extremists.

Although the Times of London, among other press outlets, had recognized the letter immediately as a likely “crude” forgery, the British government had used it as a basis for a major inquisition in Birmingham schools, a campaign to ban several Muslim educators from their life’s work, and permanent changes in British counterterrorism law. So the hoax has deeply affected people like Syed.

Now that it’s available, the Trojan Horse Affair podcast may be instructive for Americans watching today’s “education wars” play out in the United States.

Let’s consider the story that emerges from the podcast, assuming it’s generally reliable as a presentation of the available evidence.

To start with, the letter was never anything but a transparent hoax. A very transparent hoax. Indeed, the podcast shows that it may (or may not) have been sent by, or at least for the benefit of, a school official who was already under suspicion of forgery.

Yet the British government—not least the credulous culture warrior Michael Gove, who headed the education department—exploited the letter (along with another set of initially anonymous accusations based mostly on hearsay) for a campaign to accuse Muslim educators of engaging in an extremist plot to take over schools. Gove commissioned an investigation from a former chief counterterrorism officer, Peter Clarke, who issued a report repeating unsubstantiated claims and ambiguous innuendo, and demonstrating a lack of familiarity with relevant policies of the British education system.

The campaign against Birmingham teachers and schools culminated in a two-year-long disciplinary process targeting a dozen educators, which had nothing to do with the actual allegations in the hoax, and which mostly collapsed due to prosecutorial misconduct. Meanwhile, the hoax was named by the British government in 2015 as part of the basis for extending its “counter-extremism” strategy into schools, where the British surveillance state now targets individual Muslim children.

According to the podcast, when Syed and Reed tried to track down evidence about the source of the hoax and why the government ever took it seriously, they encountered pervasive official stonewalling, backed by threats of judicial censorship. At one point, they moved their operation out of the U.K. to avoid possible seizure of their reporting materials. Some of the stonewalling was probably due to understandable motives, including mistrust of the podcasters by innocent people associated with the Birmingham schools and fear of litigation on the part of the municipal government, but some remains mysterious.

Despite the obstruction, the podcasters somehow obtained a document showing that Michael Gove had been warned—before he targeted the hoax’s victims with a terrorism investigation—that the Trojan Horse letter was probably a fraud. Other documents and recordings Syed and Reed obtained appear to show that the local police and a judge used the letter—long after its authenticity was impeached—to authenticate other likely forgeries that could have been created by the same person.

At one point, the local police even used the Trojan Horse hoax as part of their basis for arresting the earlier alleged forgeries’ presumptive victims.

In short, the hoax worked. As far as British officialdom is concerned, in fact, it’s still genuine.

The apparent official incompetence documented by the podcast is grotesque. But Syed and Reed also point out—perhaps more damningly—that the British press showed a nearly complete lack of curiosity about the origins of the Trojan Horse letter throughout the ordeal and afterward, even as the government invoked it as a factual basis for national policy.

Indeed, even now, following the podcast’s release, some British journalists and officials are defending this lack of curiosity with more innuendo and misdirection.

“Even if the letter is a hoax,” said one city councilor, quoted approvingly by a newspaper columnist this month, “it doesn’t mean that the allegations are without substance.” Another columnist complained this weekend that “a range of issues” had been uncovered in Birmingham schools—including sexual abuse by one educator who may have invoked Islamic theology as part of grooming students, which is a detail the podcast mentions. This columnist argued that it was wrong for the podcast not to focus on those problems, even if the government’s and media’s claims about a nonexistent Muslim extremist plot had been “deeply unsavoury.”

Such morally bankrupt responses from the press may explain a lot about how a clumsy fraud became a national orthodoxy.

Now, let me be clear: The podcast is flawed.

Indeed, Syed and Reed confess to some of its flaws, notably including an early incident in which Syed sent a letter that stated some of his conclusions ahead of time and impugned the integrity of several people he had not yet interviewed. This letter nearly sank the entire project. Indeed, in the end, it is probably a big part of the reason the podcast cannot offer a more definitive answer to its central question.

On several occasions, Syed’s outbursts seem to have interfered with interviews while they were underway. In the final product, he and Reed frequently blur the line between the subjective and the objective, editing interviews so that they illustrate the podcasters’ impression of various encounters in disputable ways.

On the whole, I think, these are real flaws. They weaken the podcast as a piece of investigative journalism because they give critics a lot of places to introduce questions about its integrity.

In fact, I think these flaws raise questions about the whole Serial Productions enterprise. When I consider this podcast together with Brian Reed’s troubling work on S-Town, especially, it deepens my concerns about this entire model of journalism.

On the other hand, it’s important to hear how xenophobia and racism—in small ways as well as large ones—affect Hamza Syed. It’s important to know that it isn’t possible to be truly objective in reporting a story when a society calls your integrity into question before you ever enter a room.

I don’t think there’s any way for a story like this not to be frustrating, in the end. Because it’s not really about the thing it’s about. It’s about the thing that the thing it’s about was about. The frustration is kind of the point.

In a state that still basically treats the Trojan Horse letter as if it were real—and, when confronted with the point that it obviously wasn’t real, then claims that the hoax’s explosive allegations never mattered except as a means to an end—anyone who seeks the truth is fighting a society’s addiction to lies, not any particular lie.

So what does this podcast mean for American educators?

There are lessons about how poisonous and insidious Islamophobia continues to be. There are lessons about how vulnerable public schools are, in general, as potential targets of politicians acting in bad faith.

But there are also lessons about how careful educators have to be, given our vulnerabilities.

There were problems in some Birmingham schools—often mundane problems of managerial politics, employee bitterness, and, quite likely, situations made toxic by workers and leaders who put themselves ahead of their institutions and communities—but also, sometimes, problems that may have been related to religious sectarianism, including at least one horrifying case of sexual abuse. (However, coming to definitive conclusions about some of the more reliable allegations that surfaced during the Birmingham investigations must remain beyond the scope of this post.)

What seems clear is that mundane problems, mostly of the kind that are likely to plague any kind of workplace, became leverage points in Birmingham for xenophobes, and some British observers commenting on the affair in relative good faith were taken in on this basis.

That means there are also lessons here for non-educators trying to understand what’s really happening when paranoid charges are leveled against American teachers and professors.

There are lessons here about the importance of maintaining perspective; remembering the complexity of any institution; distinguishing among incompetence, malfeasance, and miscommunication; and building trust inside institutions and communities (which is difficult) rather than tearing it down (which is easy).

At the heart of this podcast, next to an enraging story about racism and religious xenophobia, is a tragic story about how fragile public institutions of learning are and how easily and quickly a good thing can be destroyed.