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16 October 2017updated 01 Aug 2021 10:53am

Mogadishu and the UK press: should Somalia’s worst terror attack be higher up the agenda?

How the British media responded to at least 300 people being killed in Somalia’s capital.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On Saturday night in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, a double truck bombing on a downtown street became the country’s worst ever terror attack.

The blast, blamed by security officials on the militant group al-Shabaab, has killed at least 300 people and the number of casualties, at 500, continues to rise.

The country has been at civil war since the Eighties, but it has never experienced a terrorist attack as deadly as this. It is also thought to be one of the world’s largest terror attacks since 9/11.

The scale and horror of the attack has led many online to scrutinise the reaction of the British media. There has been coverage of the attack this morning. The Guardian splashed on it, and the BBC Radio 4 Today programme ran an interview with their senior Africa correspondent Anne Soy near the top of the show at 6.13am, though the story dropped off later bulletins.

But none of the other national papers ran the story on their front pages, and some readers criticised the UK press response:

It is common for western press coverage of terrorist attacks, atrocities and natural disasters outside of Europe and the US to be criticised for double-standards and racism in their editorial priorities. While a national media organisation’s news agenda must focus on its country’s priorities and the interests of its audience, it can still be jarring for readers and audiences to contrast the coverage of 300 people being killed in Mogadishu with, say, the response to the most recent attack in Barcelona.

While the difficulty – in terms of both safety and resources – of working in countries at war like Somalia and Yemen can hinder the depth of reporting, there are undoubtedly places that draw more attention than others. Syria, for example, is a tough place for journalists to visit – but that hasn’t stopped most of the world’s major news organisations stationing teams in Beirut to cover the crisis from there.

“Of course, the domestic agenda is the primary one,” says Martin Plaut, who was Africa editor of BBC World Service News from 2003-2012. “This is not a position I sympathise with, but imagine it from the editorial perspective: I think the problem is really that it [the Mogadishu attack] has got the ‘so what?’ factor. If this was a peaceful place in the world, in which a bomb explosion of this magnitude was a surprise, then perhaps they would’ve been more motivated to cover it.”

Does he believe African stories are high up enough on the British news agenda? “I would always say no,” he says. “I’ve worked on Africa since the 1970s and it’s my patch, so I would never be happy with where it is [on the UK news agenda]. My whole aim as the Africa editor was always to not only inform the African audience but to drive the African agenda and African stories up the British news agenda. I saw that as one of my key responsibilities.”

Although the lack of a British angle to this story may have held back some editors, Plaut says that – if he were pitching the story – he’d point out that David Cameron “held a critical summit for Somalia” in London in 2013. “The whole basis of the peace agreement in Somalia was hammered in the city,” he says. Other angles could involve how much the UK spends in aid on Somalia, and its own Somali audience.

“There is a strong connection. And there is an interest in the country,” he adds. “We have a lot of Somalis who live here, and we have a duty to keep them informed.”

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