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Choosing the lead

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 11:25 UK time, Friday, 16 June 2006

Why Somalia and not Sri Lanka - that was the question I was asked by one of our researchers about last night's programme (listen to it here, for the next 6 days). We led on the former, while the latter was only covered in the bulletin.

The World TonightIt's a good question which had two parts.

Firstly, why cover Somalia and not Sri Lanka given there was a horrendous bus bombing there and the government had sent planes to bomb Tamil Tiger positions as the ceasefire threatens to fall completely apart?

Secondly, why lead on Somalia when the row over sentencing was the main story on Radio Four news throughout the day?

The second question is easier to answer than the first. The lifeblood of radio news programmes is their distinctiveness and as The World Tonight comes at the end of the day, covering stories that have been running all day is - in managers jargon - a challenge. If we can't think of anything new to say about them, we sometimes opt not to do them which is what we did yesterday - after all, the listeners who have not heard the news during the day and tune in at 10 will get the main points of the story in the bulletin.

The first question is more difficult and debateable. Given that the 20-year civil war that ended four years ago claimed over 60,000 lives, if full-scale war returns to Sri Lanka it will be a human tragedy in a country familiar to many Brits who have been there on holiday. And it will affect Sri Lankans and people of Sri Lankan descent living in this country.

However Somalia has the potential to have greater international impact. It is strategically located at the entrance to the Red Sea, the Americans are very worried it could be a haven for al-Qaeda types, and the advance of the Islamic Courts Union - which now controls much of the south of the country - is reminiscent of the rise of the Taleban in Afghanistan ten years ago - and we know where that led.

What happened yesterday was also significant because the US appears to have changed its approach to Somalia - it could almost be called a u-turn similar to the recent one they performed in relation to talks with Iran. It had been backing local warlords and clans who had been fighting the Islamists, but they have apparently been routed, so the US has hastily assembled a contact group which met for the first time in New York and asked the Norwegians to take the lead in coordinating with the Somali factions - the weak interim government, the Islamists and the clans.

Added to this both Today and PM had covered Sri Lanka, and hadn't covered Somalia.

That was the reasoning, but I know other editors would have raised an eyebrow at our lead last night.


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