Media manufacturing of the 'Muslim grooming gangs' crisis

Media manufacturing of the 'Muslim grooming gangs' crisis
7 min read

Ella Cockbain

04 July, 2022
States of Journalism: The media has driven intense racial stereotyping around “Muslim grooming gangs”. Dr Ella Cockbain writes about the origins, beneficiaries and harms of this persistent trope.
Interest exploded from 2011, when The Times claimed to have uncovered a new crime threat of “on-street grooming”: soon after re-dubbed “grooming gangs” writes Ella Cockbain.

Over the past decade, the UK’s “grooming gangs” have become a key focus for the international alt-right and far-right, whereby racialised and sensationalised concerns about child sexual exploitation tie in neatly with a broader anti-immigration, anti-Islam agenda. Disturbing examples of direct action linked to this issue include terrorist attacks at mosques in London’s Finsbury Park and New Zealand’s Christchurch, the racially-aggravated murder of an elderly Muslim man in Rotherham, extensive marches and abuse targeting Muslim communities in England’s North and Midlands, and far-right interventions that jeopardised major abuse trials.

There have also been attempts – some successful, others not – to recruit people who have been abused, and their families, to further anti-Islam agendas.

Yet, the racialisation of child sexual exploitation is no fringe phenomenon. Mainstream journalists, commentators, politicians from both left and right, and a dubious ‘counter-extremism’ think-tank, have all played a key role in spreading and entrenching the “Muslim grooming gangs” stereotype, as my colleague Waqas Tufail and I have documented.

The term “grooming gangs” was racially coded from the start and continues to evoke associations with non-whiteness and the Islamic faith. Its blunter equivalent, “Muslim rape gangs”, has proliferated too, throwing up over a million results on Google alone. Racial stereotyping around “grooming gangs” is now well-established within a broader tradition that includes the demonisation of black men as rapists and muggers and Muslims as terrorists and sexual deviants.

Preventing and responding effectively to any child sexual abuse is vital and underlying the “grooming gangs” narrative are very real offences with significant harms. Yet, what we are dealing with here has all the hallmarks of a moral panic: a relatively small number of cases have been cherrypicked, decontextualised, heavily publicised and relentlessly spun to create the illusion of a vast threat from the “Other”.

Interest exploded from 2011, when The Times claimed to have uncovered a new crime threat of “on-street grooming”: soon after re-dubbed “grooming gangs”. Since then, the media have pushed a gendered, racialised threat narrative that brown Muslim men are systematically sexually terrorising white British girls. The rhetoric here is often couched in terms of “our girls”, usually serving as a euphemism for white and implicitly framing young women as property to be defended. For example, a Conservative MP declared in Parliament last year that victims “more often than not are white working-class girls – our girls”. There have been numerous dramatic and similarly poorly-evidenced claims about the scale and causes of “grooming gangs” too:  most notoriously a UKIP MP’s assertion that the UK is facing “a holocaust of our daughters” due to abuse linked “to the Islamic faith”.

The chief architect of the new stereotype was a then little-known journalist at The Times called Andrew Norfolk. Norfolk subsequently received prestigious journalism awards and became a household name. His journalistic standards have since been exposed as extremely poor, following a series of inaccurate and unethical stories apparently designed to portray Muslims as a threat. He remains in post, however, as the paper’s chief investigative reporter.

Nevertheless, the responsibility for manufacturing this crisis goes much further than Norfolk and The Times, with whole swathes of the British media soon producing racialised coverage of “grooming gangs” and speculating extensively on their supposed causes.

Perhaps the worst example to date came with clear echoes of Nazi-era rhetoric: in reference to “grooming gangs”, The Sun’s then political editor asked, “what will we do about the Muslim problem then?. In the same edition, Labour MP Sarah Champion wrote a commentary arguing that “[t]hese people are predators, and the common denominator is their ethnic heritage”.

Although she later apologised somewhat for the wording, Champion remains an active figure in racialising child sexual exploitation.

Generally speaking, the term “grooming gang” gets used to refer to the sexual abuse of older children by groups of men in certain settings outside the home. Crucially, neither “grooming gangs” nor “grooming gang offences” are defined in law, and their conceptual boundaries are vague, shifting and inconsistent. This point is critical as, coupled with poor research practices and hidden agendas, it has enabled incredibly misleading claims-making.

The most notorious example is the now-defunct Quilliam Foundation’s insistence that “84% of grooming gang offenders” are Asian, primarily of Pakistani-Muslim heritage. In a classic case of lies travelling further than the truth, this dubious claim from an already controversial think-tank was widely and overwhelmingly uncritically publicised – but its subsequent debunking attracted very little media attention.

In response to public concern, media pressure and, I suspect, its own immigration-related interests, the Government reportedly ordered civil servants to investigate the ethnic composition of “grooming gangs”. Many of the challenges encountered in doing so were entirely predictable and had been foreshadowed in much more rigorous prior research on child sexual abuse.

The eventual report – which the Government initially refused to publish – found no reliable evidence of ethnic or religious overrepresentation, concluding that “research has found that group-based offenders are most commonly White”. Notably, the Home Office’s accompanying literature review echoed concerns from our and others’ work about the dangers of racialising child sexual abuse and agreed that Quilliam’s infamous 84% statistic was simply not credible.

What followed emphasised that the “grooming gangs” stereotype serves powerful political interests and would not be conceded without a fight. In the report’s foreword, Home Secretary Priti Patel called the findings “disappointing”, implying that more and different data would confirm otherwise.  Here, policy-led evidence production appears to trump evidence-led policymaking.

Shortly after, England’s first national strategy on child sexual abuse was released, singling out “grooming gangs” for special attention. In it, “grooming gangs” were the only form of offline abuse in the UK to be allocated special investigative funding and have “profiling” proposed as a necessary response.

Maintaining a focus on race/religion is a convenient distraction for a government responsible for sustained funding cuts to health, social care and community services: key components in responses to child sexual abuse. It also detracts from important questions around misogyny, class and victim blaming and how those in power respond to young people who do not present as ‘ideal victims’.

The intense focus on “Muslim grooming gangs” presents numerous mechanisms for causing harm, but there has been little rigorous research into its specific impacts to date. Overall, the stereotyping detracts from the diversity of child sexual abuse and the truly epidemic levels of its offending and victimisation. It can mean other abuses are deprioritised or overlooked.

Numerous victims and survivors have spoken out about feeling erased and invalidated because they were not abused by Muslim men, or having their stories hijacked and manipulated because they were. Racist stereotypes also harm the whole communities they stigmatise as deviant. Prejudicial stereotyping based on race and religion erodes trust in the criminal justice system.

In the busy media debate on “grooming gangs”, however, there has been little space or appetite for critical evaluation, dissent or correctives to misinformation. In parallel, offences conforming to stereotypes likely attract disproportionate coverage, thus fuelling the impression of a vast and growing problem. The intense focus on “grooming gangs” has undoubtedly influenced responses to child sexual exploitation, but in what ways and at what cost?

Dr Ella Cockbain is an Associate Professor at UCL, in the Department of Security and Crime Science, and a Visiting Research Fellow at Leiden University. Her research focuses primarily on human trafficking, child sexual exploitation and labour abuses. She has published extensively on these issues, including a book in which she analyses extensive material from now infamous child sexual exploitation investigations in Telford, Derby, Rotherham, and elsewhere. 

Follow her on Twitter: @DrEllaC

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.