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Belfast Telegraph's landmark Press victory in covering row over massacre of Jews

By Staff Reporter

Published 29/09/2015

The Kielce Pogrom in 1946
The Kielce Pogrom in 1946
Witold Sobkow, the Polish Ambassador to London

The Belfast Telegraph has won a landmark victory for freedom of expression in a case involving the massacre of Polish Jews at the end of the Second World War.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) - the newspaper industry regulator - ruled that the paper was justified in publishing correspondence that raised the issue of anti-Semitism in Poland and, in particular, the murder of dozens of Jews in the Polish city of Kielce in 1946.

The letter - written by the distinguished Cork-based academic Dr Kevin McCarthy - provoked a firestorm of complaints from the Polish community, including one from the Polish Ambassador to London.

However, in dismissing a reader complaint, Ipso found that the Belfast Telegraph had clearly signposted Dr McCarthy's views as his own and stated that the newspaper had followed the regulator's guidelines throughout.

The origins of the case can be found in a letter to the editor from John Dallat , the SDLP MLA for East Londonderry, published in July 2015, in which he referred to "Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland" as part of a wider criticism of the flying of Nazi flags in Carrickfergus.

This prompted a response from the Press attache of the Polish Embassy in London , Kaja Kazmierska, who said the phrase was inaccurate " during the Second World War, Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany and the USSR. Consequently, the concentration camp you are referring to was not 'in Poland', but rather on the German-occupied Polish territories".

Ms Kazmierska's letter, which was published in August, in turn drew a reply from Dr McCarthy , who stated that, while it was "technically correct" that Auschwitz-Birkenau was in Nazi German-occupied Poland and not under the control of a sovereign Polish government, "...the Nazis knew that Poland, with its deeply entrenched anti-Semitism, was arguably the only place under its control that would accept such an extermination centre".

As an example of "Polish historical anti-Semitism", Dr McCarthy cited the Kielce massacre of July 1946 - 16 months after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau - in which 42 Jews, many of them survivors of the concentration camps, were killed.

His letter, published earlier this month, provoked an online campaign by the worldwide Polish community. Dr McCarthy became the victim of virulent abuse and received threats in the post. The Jewish Museum in Dublin, where he had previously lectured, was targeted and a namesake at University College Cork, who had no connection to the row, received menacing emails.

The Polish Ambassador to London, Witold Sobkow, wrote to the Belfast Telegraph, asking it to remove the letter from its website and publish a correction. Neither Mr Sobkow nor Ms Kazmierska's letter made reference to Kielce, or to the 1946 massacre. The newspaper declined the Ambassador's request. A reader living in Dublin, Adam Augustyn, complained to Ipso that the newspaper had breached its own Editors' Code of Practice in publishing Dr McCarthy's views, because, he believed, the academic had no evidence to support his claims.

But, in a ringing endorsement of freedom of expression, Ipso - set up in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry into the "culture, practices and ethics of the Press" - concluded that the Belfast Telegraph had no case to answer.

It wrote to Mr Augustyn: "Clause 1 (iii) (of the Editors' Code of Practice) states that 'the Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact'. (Dr McCarthy's) letter to the newspaper was published in the 'opinion' section of the publication and was clearly presented as the views of the letter-writer.

"Therefore, the publication had not failed to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact and, as such, your complaint did not raise a possible breach of Clause 1."

The Editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Gail Walker, welcomed the ruling. She said: "The Independent Press Standards Organisation's ruling is doubly welcome: not only does it reflect the - surely common-sense - position that editors don't agree with every opinion that appears in their letters page, or, indeed, any other page; it also underscores newspapers' vital role in identifying comment, conjecture and fact - and the right of a free Press to publish all three."

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