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After triggering a global news event with reports about death threats against climate scientists, the ABC and Fairfax Media are under investigation by Media Watch after a central plank supporting their reports was found to be non-existent.

Before the flaws in their reports were revealed, their versions of the truth had been picked up by Britain’s The Guardian and the scientific journal Nature.

The critical error in their reports, which has been revealed by The Australian, is that emails held by the Australian National University that were supposed to outline death threats against climate scientists have been independently assessed as containing no death threats.

Those emails were made public on Tuesday after a long Freedom of Information campaign by blogger Simon Turnill.

But when ABC radio chose to report on the affair yesterday, it did not reveal that the ABC had reported on June 5 last year that ANU climate scientists “have been targeted by death threats”.

Others who gave credence to the “death threats” story were Lateline presenter Tony Jones, who asked Chief Scientist Ian Chubb on June 22 last year whether he was worried that scientists were receiving death threats.

“Oh, absolutely,” Professor Chubb replied. “I mean, I think it’s appalling.”

Media Watch executive producer Lin Buckfield said yesterday one of her program’s researchers was examining reports on the affair that had been carried by The Australian, ABC news, Lateline andThe Canberra Times. “If through our inquiries we decide that an item is warranted, we will proceed accordingly,” she said.

The Canberra Times published the first news of death threats against climate scientists in June last year. It said the problem was not confined to the ANU and that academics elsewhere were at risk.

The credibility of the rest of The Canberra Times’s allegations is yet to be tested. But the paper’s reporting concerning death threats at ANU is in tatters, as are the associated reports by the ABC.

The Australian has reported that 11 emails supposed to contain details of the “death threats” at ANU were independently examined by federal Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim as part of Mr Turnill’s FOI campaign.

Mr Pilgrim said they contain abuse but no death threats.

“I have determined that 10 of the documents, in the form of emails, do not contain threats to kill or threats of harm. These documents contain abuse in the sense that they contain insulting and offensive language,” Mr Pilgrim’s ruling says.

Of the one remaining email, Mr Pilgrim found: “In my view, the exchange as described in the email could be regarded as intimidating and at its highest perhaps alluding to a threat.”

When ABC radio reported on the contents of those emails yesterday it focused on the abuse — not the fact that they provide documentary evidence that the ABC produced flawed reports that have not been corrected.

The Australian, 12 May 2012