Newsroom Special Inquiry

Telescope group responds to mental health smears

The international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) organisation says it is “examining the most appropriate next steps” after seeing Newsroom’s story last Monday detailing emails and letters about an astrophysicist who objected to taxpayer funding for the SKA.

“SKAO has a policy covering all SKA-related business interactions ... aimed at maintaining the highest standards of business ethics ... any potential breach should be brought to our attention,” the telescope’s Manchester-based HQ said in a tweet to Newsroom late Thursday. The tweet linked to the SKA’s code of conduct.

Newsroom’s story described a string of emails sent by Andrew Ensor, the director of a group of telescope contractors called the New Zealand SKA Alliance, about the University of Auckland’s head of physics Richard Easther - a prominent critic of a proposed $25 million in taxpayer SKA funding.

Some of the allegations Ensor made about Easther were re-shared, or added to, by AUT’s Pro Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation John Raine, and AUT Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack. Between them, the three men alleged in various messages to government officials leading the telescope project, journalists and Easther's boss that: Easther was inappropriate, unprofessional, on a personal crusade, harassing people, knowingly spreading wrong information, that there had been “complaints” about him, and accused him of “outbursts”.

Ensor's messages culminated on January 28 when he warned tech journalist Peter Griffin about becoming a “puppet in someone’s twisted game” after Griffin questioned the value of $25m taxpayer funding for the SKA in a column. Thinking Griffin had got material for his column from Easther, Ensor told Griffin he thought Easther “would benefit far more from seeking medical help rather than greater exposure in the media”. He implied Easther’s supposed mental health issues might be “dragged out in the media” if Griffin did not “get his facts correct”.

Last Thursday, Ensor emailed Easther apologising for that email, saying he’d “expressed a personal opinion you might seek medical help” and that “this was clearly inappropriate”. Ensor apologised for “any implication it might have for” Easther and assured him it was “an isolated incident”. Ensor told Newsroom he accepted the email was an “error of judgment”.

AUT added a separate statement of its own, supporting the apology and praising Ensor’s contributions to AUT and the SKA project. Neither AUT nor Ensor mentioned the other allegations made by Ensor, Raine and McCormack about Easther.

Easther has said that although he doesn’t have a mental illness, having one shouldn’t be used as a smear and wouldn’t disqualify him doing his job or from having a valid opinion on telescope funding. He said he was more concerned about the allegation in some emails that he’d knowingly got his facts wrong. “I have had a couple of really heart-felt apologies from several people at AUT - but these came from people who had absolutely nothing to do with any of this,” he said. “I am very disappointed to see AUT’s official response. The mental heath slurs are certainly disturbing, but the multiple attacks on my integrity and judgment over the last year from their Vice Chancellor and several other AUT staff have not been addressed at all.”

Easther campaigned outspokenly against New Zealand taking full membership of the telescope-building consortium of countries, arguing the roughly $25m-over-a-decade cost of membership would be better shared more evenly around astronomy. He and 11 other astronomers asked government officials for an overall astronomy spending plan less heavily focused on radio astronomy (the SKA's field), while a group of eight radio astronomers told MBIE they supported the funding and would love to use the telescope.

Ensor was the representative of a group of universities and tech companies - including AUT - who’d been working on pre-construction design contracts for the telescope using funding from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) as well as substantial amounts of their own money. They’d expected New Zealand would become a full member of the telescope-building consortium, which would have allowed them to bid for construction contracts during the construction phase.

However, following advice from MBIE officials, Megan Woods’ office announced last year New Zealand wouldn’t be taking full membership. She has previously told journalists the Government was still considering whether to take cheaper, associate membership of the SKA organisation to allow some kind of participation, though she hasn’t announced a final decision.

Ensor has detailed several ways in which he is unhappy with Newsroom’s first story on the SKA emails. He says he is not a lecturer at AUT, as the story describes him as being. While AUT’s website describes Ensor as a “Research Pathway Senior Lecturer”, Ensor says his title is Associate Professor and that since 2013 he has been working full-time on secondment to his role as director of the SKA Alliance. Ensor remains on the AUT payroll.

Ensor says all of his emails in the story were sent by him as director of the SKA alliance of organisations, not as an AUT representative. (AUT’s VC McCormack, however, replied to the University of Auckland on AUT letterhead when the University of Auckland complained about Ensor’s “mental health” email.)

More substantially, Ensor says his views never had a proper airing in the first piece. He says AUT did not fully consult him or seek his full input when Newsroom sent AUT a list of queries covering the actions of Ensor, McCormack, Raine and others before writing the story. (Newsroom has asked AUT to confirm this). Ensor says AUT’s head of communications asked him about one allegation he’d made about Easther (related to the telescope’s costs) but that he was never consulted on the other queries, including questions about the mental health email. (Newsroom had asked if there was any factual basis for the comments.)

Having seen the story, Ensor says we should have included his words “please ensure your facts are correct” when we quoted his comment in his email to Griffin that: “If you want to continue providing (Easther) with a soap box ... be prepared to have the finger pointed at you if and when mental health issues get dragged out in the media”. He suggested that leaving the words out: "could significantly alter the meaning of the original sentence and mislead readers as to the intent of my e-mail". The first story included the whole text of Ensor’s email to Griffin as an image in the text.

The story also described a “tense” relationship between AUT and MBIE after MBIE grew less keen on the telescope project. But Ensor says it was not significantly tense between him and MBIE’s Simon Rae when he sent Rae an email saying: “You’ll have a fight to the death if MBIE try to remove overheads or reduce funding, especially at such short notice.” He says: “This is an indication to Simon that I believe if I try to negotiate such an arrangement with the SKA organisations that some will likely say no to me."

Ensor also wanted readers to know he had already told MBIE he had started tidying up the SKA contracts before being asked to make the contracts more transparent by MBIE, another episode mentioned in the piece. And he disputed an assertion officials made in a briefing to Megan Woods - quoted by Newsroom in the first story - that organisations working on the government-funded telescope contracts were warned as early as December 2017 that officials were beginning to doubt whether there was still a strong case for the telescope project, saying officials never warned him that early.

Finally, Ensor referred Newsroom to an article on online health portal WebMD about “the mental health effects of fake news”.

He pointed out that the WebMD article’s date of publication (February 13, 2018) coincided with two articles appearing in the New Zealand media that included what Ensor called “incorrect facts on the SKA”. Both New Zealand articles quoted Ensor and Easther for and against the full government funding. We've sought to clarify with Ensor the significance of the dates coinciding.

AUT’s full statement to Newsroom on Thursday afternoon reads as follows:

“AUT does not condone the comment made in the email in question and we support Andrew’s apology. We also support the huge and positive contribution Andrew has made to AUT, the SKA New Zealand Alliance and this project over many years. We continue to support debating the benefits of New Zealand’s involvement in this extraordinary initiative in a robust, fact-based manner.”

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