Nothing sells newspapers like a combination of depravity and self-righteous indignation. There can be no dispute about the depraved behaviour of the gang of Oxford men just convicted of the sexual exploitation of girls as young as 11. They were found guilty of 23 rapes, 15 conspiracies to rape and offences including trafficking, sexual exploitation and having sex with a child. The detail of the cases, which involved torture, was so shocking that much of it was not reported in the media. But where the press was unrestrained was in the almost gleeful tone with which it was reported that the men were Asians and their underage victims were white girls. Much of the coverage has been an exercise in covert racism.
The case, like the one in Rochdale last year, has proved a great stick with which to beat multicultural notions that social harmony is best served by celebrating every culture. The assaults grow out of Pakistani culture, it is hinted. Or, more insidiously, it is suggested that Islam is somehow to blame with observation that what unites the offenders is their religion. "The rapists are all probably in one sense 'good' Muslims, praying and fasting in the daytime, then prowling and preying at night," opined one particularly rebarbative columnist in the Catholic Herald.
What is really to blame, it is more generally suggested, is an oversensitivity by police and social workers terrified of being accused of racism. "Sensitivities over race should not be allowed to take precedence over children's safety," editorials have pontificated, as if anyone could seriously hold the opposite view. All this is accompanied by sanctimonious assurances that no one is suggesting that all Asians, Pakistanis or Muslims should be tarred with the same smeary brush. But much of the coverage subliminally invites exactly that.
Statistics have been trotted out supposedly to substantiate this. Yet academics seriously studying the phenomenon say that figures have been used selectively to create certainties where none exist. Greater Manchester Police, in whose area the Rochdale offences took place, insist 95 per cent of the men on its sex offenders register are white – and groom children via the internet or by worming their way into the affections of their mothers before abusing them in their own homes.
The leader of the Rochdale grooming gang has since been jailed for attacking a young Asian female. A Bangladeshi father has recently revealed his daughter is being groomed by a Turkish gang that has been giving her heroin. There are court cases in the legal pipeline involving alleged sex gangs that are white, mixed race or with men of African as well Asian origin. None of these, I predict, will create the same media outcry.
To say that is not to deny that there are not serious issues for the Asian community to address. But across an increasingly wide scale, Asians are doing that. Community activists such as Mohammed Shafiq, of the Ramadhan Foundation in Manchester, and Alyas Karmani, a Bradford imam who is a psychologist, are engaged in practical work to challenge distorted notions of masculinity among Muslim youth. The public prosecutor in the Rochdale case, Nazir Afzal, was of Pakistani origin. Dr Taj Hargey, an Oxford imam, is campaigning against those British Asians who believe that the "miniskirts and sleeveless tops" of white women signal "their impure and immoral outlook".
The novelist Bina Shah has criticised a culture of racism, misogyny, tribalism and sexual vulgarity among men "who hail from the poorest, least educated, and most closed-off parts of Pakistan". Julie Siddiqi, the executive director of the Islamic Society of Britain, has called for a change in the male dominance at the top of many Muslim organisations which may have contributed to their community's silence on grooming.
All of this confounds the lazy stereotypes about sex and race peddled by those in search of a sensationalist headline. The truth is not just more complicated but less conducive to reinforcing readers' prejudices. Opportunity is as likely a factor as race here. Young vulnerable girls gravitate to a night-time economy where the taxi drivers and takeaway workers they encounter are more likely to be Asian. So why not headlines about "Taxi Sex Gangs"?
Throughout our contemporary epidemic of child sex abuse, occupation seems just as significant a factor – as the wave of accusations against 1970s televisions celebrities, soap stars, music teachers, care workers and Catholic priests shows. The truth is that sexual predation is about power and its abuse by people in positions of authority. Culpability for the failure to combat it is often to be laid at the door of institutions more anxious to protect their reputations than concerned to protect the innocence of a child.
There is another danger in peddling stereotypes. It diverts attention from the wider areas in which we should all be vigilant. The Oxford case raises a wide range of issues about the assumptions and systems of social workers, nine out of 10 of whom knew the girls were being groomed for sex by men who gave them drugs. It requires scrutiny of police procedures and the management of care homes. It should ask questions of the owners of the guesthouses in which the abuse took place, and of parents and of the public, for we all have a duty to ask questions about dubious-looking relationships.
The authorities in Rochdale have begun to show the way forward with reforms in all these areas. They involve school awareness programmes, training of council staff, a single point of contact for all referrals of concern on child sex abuse, improved Criminal Records Bureau checks, an accreditation scheme called Safe Rochdale Taxi and a car staffed by police and youth workers to patrol the streets. Such measures will do a lot to protect children. But they will not grab cheap headlines as readily as a good old-fashioned racial slur.