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Comment gives media a chance to let every side have their say

By Paul Connolly

Published 02/10/2015

In mourning: Jewish relatives
In mourning: Jewish relatives

News this week that the Independent Press Standards Organisation rejected a complaint against the Belfast Telegraph over an article about massacres of Polish Jews will hopefully draw a line under a rather heated affair.

Some people close to the controversy have sought to argue that the matter turns on why the main Nazi death camps were located in the geographical territory of Poland.

Was this because Poland had "deeply-entrenched anti-Semitism", as a letter-writer claimed, or was it because Poland was the occupied country with the largest number of Jews and therefore the logical site for mass murder?

That is a valid matter for discussion and should, of course, be thoroughly researched. I doubt it can ever be proved; not least because of the vastness of the subject, the absence of records, contradictions in historical policy and the enormous numbers of Poles who acted with compassion towards their Jewish neighbours (and indeed fought alongside them in Warsaw and elsewhere).

Rather, the media point for the Belfast Telegraph turned on the issue of newspapers and how they treat Comment.

The fundamental point is that if Comment is presented as opinion and not fact, then the newspaper has infringed no rules.

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".

The origins of the controversy are too lengthy to detail. Put very simply, a mention of the "Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland" was countered by an (ill-advised, in my opinion) retort to the Telegraph from the Polish Embassy in London that the camp was not in Poland but in "German-occupied Polish territories". Both the statements are, in fact, true.

The embassy letter triggered another letter, from Irish academic Dr Kevin McCarthy, alleging the death camps were positioned because of latent anti-Semitism, not the presence-of-numbers argument.

Dr McCarthy cited a post-war massacre of 42 Jews at Kielce, which further inflamed some Polish activists. The subsequent outcry included some threats.

Again, the Polish Embassy intervened (equally unwisely again, in my opinion) asking the Belfast Telegraph to remove the letter from its website and publish a correction. The Editor properly refused.

The protesters and the embassy, as so often happens when people hold strong views, had gotten themselves tangled up. Papers contain a multiplicity of views; it's pointless to argue the editor can or should agree with them all.

The complainant's subsidiary point, that the Belfast Telegraph should have verified McCarthy's claim before publication, is absurd. Neither history nor current affairs could be reported if this was so. It would be physically impossible for our reporters to prove claims and counter-claims before publication. We couldn't even report Irish historical events like the Famine, 1916 Uprising and the Troubles if we had to verify everything. That's for historians, not hacks.

One level at issue here is the tragic history of Poland and its emotive potential still. Western Europeans misunderstand the depths of Poland's war experience; five million dead in six years.

I remember battling through Norman Davies' brilliant God's Playground. A History of Poland, literally plagued with nightmares over its Second World War descriptions. So vividly gruesome was his prose detailing the vile German Einsatzgruppen death squads, that I had to skip some pages. They were simply too terrible to read. It is, I suppose, little wonder all that fear and chaos still echoes down the decades.

Belfast Telegraph

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