UPDATE 6: Jo Nova writes here.
UPDATE 5: Scan of The Australian article is now here.
UPDATE 4: Catallaxy Files writes here.
UPDATE 3: James Delingpole writes here.
UPDATE 2: Anthony Watts posts on this here.
UPDATE 1: Andrew Bolt comments here.
Christian Kerr at The Australian reports on my ongoing efforts to obtain, from the Australian National University, copies of emails to climate scientists containing death threats, and a recent Privacy Commissioner ruling that shows that none of the documents produced contain such threats:
Climate scientists’ claims of email death threats go up in smoke
CLAIMS that some of Australia’s leading climate change scientists were subjected to death threats as part of a vicious and unrelenting email campaign have been debunked by the Privacy Commissioner.
Timothy Pilgrim was called in to adjudicate on a Freedom of Information application in relation to Fairfax and ABC reports last June alleging that Australian National University climate change researchers were facing the ongoing campaign and had been moved to “more secure buildings” following explicit threats.
In a six-page ruling made last week, Mr Pilgrim found that 10 of 11 documents, all emails, “do not contain threats to kill” and the other “could be regarded as intimidating and at its highest perhaps alluding to a threat”.
Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, who was the ANU’s vice-chancellor at the time, last night admitted he did not have any recollection of reading the emails before relocating the university’s researchers. “I don’t believe I did,” Professor Chubb told The Australian.
Instead, he said he had responded “as a responsible employer”.
“I had a bunch of concerned staff and they thought they should be moved to a more secure place so I moved them,” he said.
“With hindsight, we can say nobody chased them down. What do you do?”
The FOI application was lodged by Sydney climate blogger Simon Turnill. It requested the release of “emails, transcript of telephone calls or messages that contained abuse, threats to kill and/or threats of harm to the recipient” sent to six staff members of the ANU’s Climate Change Institute. His request resulted in the discovery of the 11 documents.
The university refused to release the documents, citing a clause in the Freedom of Information Act that exempts documents that “would, or could reasonably be expected to … endanger the life or physical safety of any person” from disclosure.
Mr Turnill appealed against the decision.
In response to the appeal, Mr Pilgrim found 10 documents did not contain threats to kill or threats of harm.
Mr Pilgrim said of the 11th, a further email offering an account of an exchange that occurred at an off-campus event sponsored by members of the Climate Change Institute and other bodies: “I consider the danger to life or physical safety in this case to be only a possibility, not a real chance.”
By way of background, in June 2011, there was a flurry of media reports regarding the receipt of alleged “death threats” at the ANU and other universities. The story was the splash in the Canberra Times on 4 June. Furthermore, for example, here in Australia the ABC reported:
Death threats sent to top climate scientists
Several of Australia’s top climate change scientists at the Australian National University have been subjected to a campaign of death threats, forcing the university to tighten security.
Several of the scientists in Canberra have been moved to a more secure location after receiving the threats over their research.
Vice-chancellor Professor Ian Young says the scientists have received large numbers of emails, including death threats and abusive phone calls, threatening to attack the academics in the street if they continue their research.
He says it has been happening for the past six months and the situation has worsened significantly in recent weeks. (source)
The story made it around the world, with the UK Guardian reporting:
Australian climate scientists receive death threats
A number of Australia’s leading climate scientists have been moved into safer accommodation after receiving death threats, in a further escalation of the country’s increasingly febrile carbon price debate.
The revelation of the death threats follows a week of bitter exchanges between the government and the opposition in the wake of a pro-carbon price TV advert featuring actor Cate Blanchett.
The Australia National University (ANU) in Canberra said that it has moved a number of its climate scientists to a secure facility after they received a large number of threatening emails and phone calls.
Ian Young, ANU’s vice-chancellor, told ABC national radio that the threats had worsened in recent weeks.
“Obviously climate research is an emotive issue at the present time,” he said.
“These are issues where we should have a logical public debate and it’s completely intolerable that people be subjected to this sort of abuse and to threats like this.
“I think it is totally outrageous and the vast majority of Australians would think it is totally unacceptable for anybody in society to be subjected to this sort of behaviour.”
Young said that scientists had been threatened with assault if they were identified in the street. Among those targeted is Prof Will Steffen, ANU’s climate institute director. (source)
The Nature blog ran the story as well:
Australian climate scientists face death threats
Leading climate scientists in Australia are being subjected to an escalating campaign of death threats and abusive phone calls, as the country’s government edges closer to introducing a price on carbon.
A number of Australia’s highest profile climate scientists have been moved into secure buildings following the recent spate of threats, including at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, as well as other universities in New South Wales and Queensland. Some economists and policy experts have also been relocated after being targeted.
ANU vice-chancellor Professor Ian Young told ABC News that the situation has worsened significantly in recent weeks. “Obviously climate research is an emotive issue at the present time,” he said. “These are issues where we should have a logical public debate and it’s completely intolerable that people be subjected to this sort of abuse and to threats like this.”
Scientists targeted include Will Steffen, director of ANU’s climate change institute. (source)
As a result of these news items, on 5 June 2011 I submitted an application for the documents in question under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The request stated that I required copies of the following:
Emails or telephone calls or messages to members of the Climate Change Institute containing abuse, threats to kill and/or threats of harm to the recipient
and sent to any of six senior members of the ANU’s Climate Change Institute within the previous six months.
On 4 August 2011, the ANU sent a decision letter in which they stated that 11 documents meeting the above criteria had been found, but all of them were exempt from disclosure under two grounds, firstly, that of privacy, and secondly, that disclosure may “endanger the life or physical safety of any person”.
This immediately struck me as odd. Naturally, personal information could easily be redacted from emails, and secondly, how could such disclosure of the content of previously sent emails possibly cause further danger to life or physical safety? I did not see any point in referring the matter for internal review at ANU, and therefore lodged an appeal directly with the Information Commissioner. The grounds for appeal were stated thus:
The request for information regarded alleged “death threats” sent to members of the Australian National University climate change department. This story was reported widely in the media (e.g. including at the ABC – http://www.abc.net.au/ news/2011-06-04/death-threats-sent-to-top-climate-scientists/2745536, Herald Sun – http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/ scientists-suffer-death-threats/story-e6frf7jo-1226069173816, Sydney Morning Herald – http://www.smh.com.au/environment/ climate-change/death-threats-to-scientists-20110604-1fm4i.html).
I contacted the ACT police media office about this matter and they confirmed no complaint had been received and therefore no action in respect of the alleged threats had been taken.
The reasons for this review are as follows:
1. The ANU claims that disclosing the material would result in “unreasonable disclosure of personal information”, despite the fact that such information could easily be redacted from the e-mails. Such a ground should not prevent the disclosure of the substance of the e-mails.
2. The ANU further claims that disclosing the material would “endanger the life or physical safety of any person.” This is clearly nonsensical. The disclosure of the e-mails has no bearing on the threats contained therein, and cannot possibly further endanger life or physical safety of those concerned.
3. The ANU apply both exclusions to every document. It appears that this decision is therefore arbitrary and there has been no attempt to apply the exclusions on a case by case basis.
Given that no complaint was made to the police, the suspicion must arise that the e-mails contained abuse, but, importantly, no “threat to kill” within the meaning of the criminal law. That suspicion would also extend to the fact the ANU would now be reluctant to disclose the materials, since it would reveal that the stories reported in the media were exaggerated and overblown.
Given that the ANU themselves were content for the story to be provided to the media, it is wholly unconscionable for them now to refuse access to the materials on which those media reports were based, whether they are supportive of such media reports or otherwise.
Finally, after a long wait, on 26 April 2012, the Privacy Commissioner ruled in my favour. The decision is available here. In respect of danger to life, the Commissioner wrote:
15. The question is how release of the documents could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any person. In other words, the question is whether release of the documents could be expected to create the risk, not whether the documents reflect an existing credible threat. Even if the threats were highly credible, the question would be how release of the documents would add to the expected threat.
16. In my view, there is a risk that release of the documents could lead to further insulting or offensive communication being directed at ANU personnel or expressed through social media. However, there is no evidence to suggest disclosure would, or could reasonably be expected to, endanger the life or physical safety of any person.
17. Therefore I consider that the 11 documents are not exempt under s 37(1)(c).
In respect of privacy issues, he wrote:
21. I agree that the documents in their entirety contain information and/or opinions about individuals—both those sending and receiving the documents. However, the scope of material that the applicant is seeking in this review excludes information that would make the identity of the individuals sending or receiving the emails reasonably identifiable. Without identifying information, such as names, phone numbers and email addresses, I do not consider the material within the scope of the review is personal information. In my opinion the identity of the senders and recipients of the emails would not be apparent or reasonably ascertainable from the remaining information in the documents. Therefore the 11 documents without information identifying individuals are not exempt under s 47F.
The ANU have still refused to release the documents, pending a possible appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. I fully intend to contest this appeal if necessary.
Furthermore, enquiries to the ACT Police last week confirm that since the threats were allegedly received, no complaint had been received from the University, and therefore no investigation has ever taken place.