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.”
Instead, he found “the exchange as described in the email could be regarded as intimidating and at its highest perhaps alluding to a threat”.
The commissioner noted in his decision that Mr Turnill had confirmed he was not seeking “the release of personal information about the people who sent or received the emails or were referred to in calls or messages”.
Mr Pilgrim has ordered edited version of the documents to be released. “There is no evidence to suggest disclosure would, or could reasonably be expected to, endanger the life or physical safety of any person,” he said.
The commissioner noted that the emails “contain insulting and offensive language” and expressed fears “there is a risk that the release of the documents could lead to further insulting or offensive communication being directed at ANU personnel or expressed through social media”.
But Mr Pilgrim also found: “Even if the threats were highly credible, the question would be how release of the documents would add to the expected threat.”
ANU Climate Institute director Will Steffen, who is also one of the government’s Climate Commissioners, is believed to have been a target of the emails. Professor Steffen was overseas yesterday and unavailable for comment.
The ANU has until later this month to appeal against the commissioner’s decision.
A university spokesman said it stood by its decision to oppose the release of the documents.
“We are reviewing the Privacy Commissioner’s decision and considering our response,” he said.
Professor Chubb said he believed the tenor of the climate debate was improving.
“I don’t get the sense that there’s the same level of nastiness,” he said.
But he insisted “we should keep the debate civil and not threaten or intimidate whether the threats are physical violence or death”.