February 23, 2022 - 5:32pm

When the New York Times bought the production company behind “Serial,” one of the most successful podcasts of all time, listeners were expecting great things. It might have taken another eight years before Serial published a follow-up season, but it seemed worth the wait: “The Trojan Horse Affair”, as the series was called, quickly became one of the most downloaded podcasts in the world. But now details are emerging that threaten to turn The Trojan Horse Affair series into a full-blown journalistic scandal for the Gray Lady.

The Trojan Horse Affair focuses on claims that a group of Muslim activists were attempting to “Islamise” British state schools. It tells the story of an alleged plot by hardline Islamists who tried to take over various state schools in Birmingham in 2014, which prompted a national inquiry. The podcast centres around a hoax letter regarding the supposed plot that was sent to Birmingham council at the time.

The Trojan Horse Affair is a topic certainly worth investigating. But the problem with the podcast is that its creators, Brian Reed and Hamza Syed, seem to have a very clear agenda from the outset. Syed, a first-time journalist, openly declares that his “mission” in the podcast is to focus the entire story on this one letter. “All you had to do was focus everyone on the question of who wrote the letter,” Syed says in episode two. If the journalists could do that, he says, “everything that comes after it doesn’t matter.” But while the podcast mostly focuses on the letter itself, it downplays a number of other issues ranging from child protection to homophobia.

This on its own should have raised alarm bells. Journalists often have a sense of what a story might be. But a mission — an attempt to achieve, in this case, an ideological goal — can lead to a distorted picture. Indeed, Syed and Reed appear to have been willing to go to pretty extreme lengths. In one case, they subjected two whistle-blowers to an “interview,” which, according to the whistle-blowers, turned into a seven-hour-long interrogation the pair described as “torture.”

The podcast similarly made gross errors and distortions relating to an interview with a representative from Humanists UK, whose words they seemed to have deliberately lifted out of context in order to misconstrue them as Islamophobic. In the words of the organisation:

As all investigations found and as we know ourselves, there were genuine and significant problems in the schools in Birmingham, corroborated by multiple whistleblowers and by documentary evidence. This remains true even if some of the other claims made in the official investigations turn out to be untrue or unsubstantiated. It cannot be swept under the carpet as Islamophobia.
- Humanists UK

Despite the podcast being replete with such inaccuracies and distortions, the Times has refused to fully correct or pull the podcast and instead quietly re-recorded one segment without issuing an editor’s note or correction.

Here, the NYT has form. When the paper published its now-notorious 1619 Project, the Times pushed claims so brazenly divorced from historical reality that even one of their own fact-checkers told them they could not publish them. They ran those claims anyway. Or, more recently, a NYT article about a heat wave in Britain incorrectly said that people flocked to swamps instead of parks, beaches and streams.

For the past five years, the New York Times’ core marketing campaign has centred around a single word: truth. In countless billboards and online ads, the paper proclaims that truth, like its moral descendant, justice, must be won at any cost. For that reason, no one is allowed to question the New York Times, which serves as the world’s greatest truth dispenser, even when it gets the story wrong.

Unfortunately, as we have seen with the Trojan Horse Affair podcast, when an agenda takes precedence over accurate reporting, truth is often the first casualty.