There is a disturbing type of aggressive public relations being used to try to re-write history. I noted several examples of heavy-handed PR in The Silent State: public officials getting harassed, bullied and in some cases criminally prosecuted by their public service employers for speaking directly to the public (instead of through central press offices). It seems there is another tactic gaining strength whereby PRs attempt to silence those uttering inconvenient truths ‘Scientology-style’ by hunting down criticism and aggressively seeking to have it withdrawn.
This week I received an email from the Guardian’s Reader Editor seeking clarification for the opinion piece I wrote about the reluctance by some universities to disclose underlying research in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. They’d had a complaint – not from Stirling University, the subject of the piece, but from the University of East Anglia which occupied a whole ONE SENTENCE of my article. The offending section reads thus:
This is not the first time a university has tried to hide from FoI. The University of East Anglia breached the Freedom of Information Act when handling requests by climate change sceptics (the university escaped prosecution because the case came to light outside the six-month time limit for cases to be brought).
For those who don’t recall, the University of East Anglia got into trouble when someone hacked into its server and leaked a number of documents, detailed data and private e-mails exchanged between climate scientists to the public. The emails gave the impression the University was not exactly keen on the public’s right to know and was actively breaching access to information laws by suppressing or destroying information subject to requests.
One email from Professor Phil Jones, then the director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) stated: “If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone”, and another email in which he had written “Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4?”.
Most of the hand-wringing by the university seemed to focus on the leak itself rather than on the disturbing content which showed officials actively trying to evade their FOI responsibilities. The Information Commissioner was called in to investigate and found primie facie evidence that the access laws had been breached. However, the ICO was never able to make a formal finding or complete its investigation because it discovered a loophole in the law that tied its hands. While it is a criminal offence to alter, destroy or suppress information subject to FOI requests, the statute of limitations on this crime is a measly SIX MONTHS. For this reason alone, the ICO could not proceed. Instead they did what they could and issued a decision notice on the breaches of other aspects of the Environmental Information Regulations (the FOI equivalent for environmental info). The Notice also refers to the criminal offences:
The emails suggested that some requests for information were considered an imposition, that attempts to circumvent the legislation were considered and that the ethos of openness and transparency the legislation seeks to promote were not universally accepted. This is of considerable concern to the Commissioner and in keeping with his duty to promote observance of the legislation he will now consider whether further action is appropriate to secure future compliance.
The complainant made an allegation that an offence under regulation 19 of the EIR had been committed. Although the emails referred to above indicated prime facie evidence of an offence, the Commissioner was unable to investigate because six months had passed since the potential offence was committed, a constraint placed on the legislation by the Magistrates Court Act 1980.
And finally there were a number of enquiries: the Muir Russell Report and various reports of the Science and Technology Select Committee which exonerated most of the important people. Here’s how another article in the Guardian described the findings of the Russell Report:
…the inquiry conducted detailed analysis of only three cases of potential abuse of peer review. And it investigated only two instances where allegations were made that CRU scientists such as director Phil Jones and deputy director Keith Briffa misused their positions as IPCC authors to sideline criticism. On the issue of peer review and the IPCC, it found that “the allegations cannot be upheld”, but made clear this was partly because the roles of CRU scientists and others could not be distinguished from those of colleagues. There was “team responsibility”.
The report is far from being a whitewash. And nor does it justify the claim of university vice-chancellor Sir Edward Action that it is a “complete exoneration”. In particular it backs critics who see in the emails a widespread effort to suppress public knowledge about their activities and to sideline bloggers who want to access their data and do their own analysis.
Most seriously, it finds “evidence that emails might have been deleted in order to make them unavailable should a subsequent request be made for them [under Freedom of information law]“. Yet, extraordinarily, it emerged during questioning that Russell and his team never asked Jones or his colleagues whether they had actually done this.
Secrecy was the order of the day at CRU. “We find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness,” says the report. That criticism applied not just to Jones and his team at CRU. It applied equally to the university itself, which may have been embarrassed to find itself in the dock as much as the scientists on whom it asked Russell to sit in judgment.
The university “failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements” – FOI law in particular – and “also the risk to the reputation of the university and indeed the credibility of UK climate science” from the affair.
The university has responded by abolishing the role of director of CRU, held by Jones until last November. Indeed CRU itself has lost its former independence. Acton said Jones would now be “director of research” for CRU, working within the university environment department.
Knowing all this you can imagine my amazement at the sheer gall of UEA to then demand this correction:
Subject: Heather Brookes on Freedom of Information
Heather Brooke’s opinion piece: “Freedom of information is for businesses too” (2 September 2010) perpetuates the myth that the University of East Anglia has breached the Freedom of Information Act.
She bases her assertion on a previous Guardian piece which we wrote asking you to correct.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has confirmed that it has not investigated whether section 77 of the act had actually been breached – ie whether the university had broken the law. As a point of detail, we also pointed out that the case in question related to emails and not to climate data as mentioned in the article of 28 January 2010.
I hope you can correct this.
University of East Anglia