When the word 'saintly' can be made a state secret

What do civil servants in the Department of Energy and Climate Change think about the Guardian's environmental columnist George Monbiot - and why does it have to stay secret?

I was pondering on these questions when I read a document released earlier this month by the energy department in response to an information request.

It featured in a collection of departmental files relating to "Climategate", the incident in 2009 when large quantities of emails belonging to climate scientists at the University of East Anglia were hacked and published on the internet.

The major controversy that followed focused on concerns about how some scientists were operating. In the aftermath, officials involved in government energy policy were worried about how it would affect public opinion on policies to tackle climate change.

In June 2010, DECC's then head of science Dr Nafees Meah gave an internal presentation to colleagues about communicating climate science.

In it, he noted that Monbiot had called for the resignation of Professor Phil Jones, head of the university's Climatic Research Unit, who featured prominently in the hacked emails.

Monbiot later regretted this, when an inquiry cleared Prof Jones and his colleagues of manipulating data, while stating that they should have been more open about their work. But at the time, many considered it striking that a leading environmentalist had criticised Prof Jones to such an extent.

Dr Meah's reference to Monbiot (who he called "Mombiot") was preceded by some description of him, which was removed from the disclosed text of the speech:

What could he have said that demanded such secrecy, amidst the release of a large collection of government documents which contained much revealing material?

DECC has now told me that the missing words are "the saintly".

"The decision to redact the wording was made on the basis that, in printed form, the comment could have been misconstrued in the absence of the speaker's intonation," the department said.

"On reflection, however, it is considered that this approach was erring on the side of caution."

So now we know that Monbiot was described as "saintly", even if we still don't know the intonation with which this epithet would have been uttered.

And perhaps we have learnt something else - that when government departments respond to information requests, sometimes extracts are redacted for unnecessary and rather peculiar reasons.

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