Sunday, February 7, 2010

Phil Jones: The leak was bad. Then came the death threats

Phil Jones said he and his colleagues were targeted by climate change sceptics

By Richard Girling

PHOTOGRAPHS of Professor Phil Jones show a handsome, smiling, confident-looking man. Not chubby exactly, but in blooming good health. The man who meets me at the University of East Anglia (UEA) looks grey-skinned and gaunt, as if he has been kept in prison.

In a way, he has. Since November last year he has been a prisoner of public opprobrium and a target of such vilification that was he was almost persuaded to comply with the wishes of those who wanted him dead.

In bare outline, the story of the Climatic Research Unit emails — “Climategate” — is well known. …

He now accepts that he did not treat the FoI requests as seriously as he should have done. “I regret that I did not deal with them in the right way,” he told The Sunday Times. “In a way, I misjudged the situation.”

But he pleads provocation. Last year in July alone the unit received 60 FoI requests from across the world. With a staff of only 13 to cope with them, the demands were accumulating faster than they could be dealt with. “According to the rules,” says Jones, “you have to do 18 hours’ work on each one before you’re allowed to turn it down.” It meant that the scientists would have had a lot of their time diverted from research.

A further irritation was that most of the data was available online, making the FoI requests, in Jones’s view, needless and a vexatious waste of his time. In the circumstances, he says, he thought it reasonable to refer the applicants to the website of the Historical Climatology Network in the US.

He also suspected that the CRU was the target of a co-ordinated attempt to interfere with its work — a suspicion that hardened into certainty when, over a matter of days, it received 40 similar FoI requests. Each applicant asked for data from five different countries, 200 in all, which would have been a daunting task even for someone with nothing else to do. It was clear to Jones that the attack originated from an old adversary, the sceptical website Climate Audit, run by Steve McIntyre, a former minerals prospector and arch climate sceptic.

“We were clearly being targeted,” says Jones. “Only 22% of the FoI enquiries were identifiably from within the UK, 39% were from abroad and 39% were untraceable.” What irked him was that the foreign applicants would all have had sources closer to hand in their own countries.

“I think they just wanted to waste our time,” he says. “They wanted to slow us down.”

It was pure irritation, he says, that provoked him and others to write the notorious emails apparently conspiring to destroy or withhold data. “It was just frustration. I thought the requests were just distractions. It was taking us away from our day jobs. It was written in anger.”

But he insists that no data were destroyed. “We have no data to delete. It comes to us from institutions around the world. We interpret data. We don’t create or collect it. It’s all available from other sources.”

If the leak itself was bad, the aftermath was the stuff of nightmares. Even now, weeks later, Jones seems rigid with shock. “There were death threats,” he says. “People said I should go and kill myself. They said they knew where I lived.” Two more death threats came last week after the deputy information commissioner delivered his verdict, making more work for Norfolk police, who are already investigating the theft of the emails.

The effect on Jones was devastating. The worldwide outcry plunged him into the snakepit of international politics. It was, he agrees, “a David Kelly moment”. …

The leak was bad. Then came the death threats

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