Ian Burrell: When disaster strikes in Africa, a nation is left to mourn alone

Media Studies: A tragic foreign story, which left dozens of children dead, has been virtually ignored
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The Independent Online

Nearly a month after the slaughter of 20 school children at Sandy Hook, the awful story rightly remains a high priority for the British media. "Massacre Guns on Sale in the UK" was a splash headline last week in The Sun, which reported that firearms "virtually identical" to the Bushmaster AR-15 used by Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the killings, were available here too.

Sandy Hook has gripped the British media like no other foreign story in years. Every major news organisation despatched correspondents to Connecticut and the haunting class pictures of the innocent victims were on every front page and at the start of every broadcast bulletin.

And yet an equally tragic foreign story, which resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocent children, has been virtually ignored. The New Year's Eve fireworks party at the national football stadium in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, turned into a catastrophe.

When one group of party-goers was trying to leave the venue, another crowd was surging into the stadium. In the darkness, a panic-fuelled stampede led to a deadly suffocating crush. And in the aftermath, when the trampled bodies had been taken away, the piles of unclaimed tiny shoes and flip flops was a heart-rending symbol of how many children had been lost. The death toll stands at 64, with at least 28 of them said to be aged under 15.

The story was especially poignant for happening on an evening when so many families in Britain and around the world had allowed their kids to stay up, many at crowded public events.

Yet the tragedy went largely unrecorded in this country. The Independent was the only paper to carry a photograph, a shot of those lost shoes, over a two-column piece headlined "Crowd stampede kills 60 after fireworks party". The Daily Telegraph ran a short report from West Africa correspondent Mike Pflanz. The Guardian carried a few paragraphs from Reuters and The Times made it a nib (news in brief).

All these stories appeared on the foreign pages. None of the tabloid papers thought the disaster worthy of mention at all. At least the BBC and Sky News briefly gave the story coverage with witness reports and images from Abidjan hospitals.

Africa fatigue lives on. Last month the British arm of Oxfam International changed its advertising strategy, with a positive campaign that featured pictures of lush scenery and thriving food markets instead of the usual shots of starving babies. The campaign's tagline was: "Let's Make Africa Famous for its Epic Landscapes, Not Hunger", aimed at combating the erosion in compassion that has resulted from three decades of famine imagery.

We might argue that Sir David Attenborough has already achieved the first part of Oxfam's objective. His new series Africa opened to an audience of 6.5 million on BBC1 last week. But positive advertising and sumptuous wildlife documentaries should not mean that Africa's pain needs to be airbrushed from the news media too.

Of course, the lack of coverage of the Abidjan disaster was the result of a number of factors. Breaking on New Year's Day, when newsrooms are inevitably understaffed, the story occurred in a country where the English language media is under-served by stringers. The global news agencies filed minimal copy and so editors were deprived of the detail of human drama which would surely have given the story a greater profile.

But this was still the biggest foreign news story of the day. At the same time a further 16 people had been killed – including four children – and 120 injured in a second New Year's Eve stadium stampede in Angola. That tragedy added to the Ivory Coast narrative or diminished it by emphasising the regularity of African disasters, depending on your point of view. And there was the lack of a monster like Adam Lanza for the media to put under its microscope. The killers in Abidjan and Angola were more abstract.

Sandy Hook was represented as every British parent's worst nightmare whereas, in spite of the Dunblane school tragedy of 1996, gun crime remains rare on these shores and is in decline. The Times reported last week that 39 people died from gunshots in Britain in 2011, compared to an annual death toll of 96 a decade earlier.

The possibility of being crushed in a crowd seems more real. We were all reminded of that danger recently with the results of the Hillsborough inquiry. And yet the horrors of last week will be allowed to pass us by, the asphyxiated victims denied even the posthumous oxygen of global recognition. Barack Obama shed tears over Sandy Hook, but don't expect him to make comments like "we will hug our children a little tighter" after the killer stampedes. David Cameron, who issued a Downing Street statement offering condolences to victims of the Connecticut slaughter, has not made a similar gesture since New Year's Eve.

This remains an African story. Ivory Coast, which declared a period of national mourning, will be left to grieve alone.

When Piers Morgan fired a Magnum 45

I went to Dunblane in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy. It was a big story but there was, of course, nothing remotely gratifying in reporting from that awful situation. Intruding on a town's grief, to inform the wider public, you felt like a funeral director or mortuary official – except your presence at the scene was not invited.

Piers Morgan was editor of the Daily Mirror at the time and he wrote recently that he will "never forget the appalling TV footage of those poor Scottish mothers sprinting to the small primary school". In an article for the Mail on Sunday, the CNN chat show host said it was one of the reasons why he would be prepared to leave America in the wake of Sandy Hook. Morgan's public support of tougher American gun laws has led to calls for his deportation.

He began his article with a curious anecdote. "I have fired guns only once in my life, on a stag party to the Czech capital Prague a few years ago when part of the itinerary included a trip to an indoor shooting range," he said. "For three hours, our group were let loose on everything from Magnum 45 handguns and Glock pistols, to high-powered 'sniper' rifles and pump-action shotguns. It was controlled, legal, safe and undeniably exciting."

But this was not just any group. In the stag party were a famous showbiz columnist, a celebrity photographer, four of London's best known PR men and another national newspaper editor. The stag himself was none other than Andy Coulson, the former Downing Street communications chief and then editor of the ill-fated News of the World.

The (client) list goes on and on

You can't keep the irrepressible London lawyer Henri Brandman away from a big media story. Dog lover Brandman was solicitor for News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman at the original hacking trial in 2007. As the hacking arrests have continued, Brandman has stepped up to represent Goodman's old colleagues Neville Thurlbeck, Greg Miskiw and Rebekah Brooks's PA Cheryl Carter. When News International's own lawyer Tom Crone was arrested, he too turned to Brandman.

His latest client is comedian and former host of The Generation Game Jim Davidson who was held last week on suspicion of sex offences, as part of Scotland Yard's Operation Yewtree inquiry, which began into the activities of Jimmy Savile and has grown to include others working in TV and showbiz (though the investigation into Davidson is not connected to Savile).