What journalists and public figures can learn from the Tom Flanagan takedown

Reviewed by Jamie Cameron

Reviewed by Jamie Cameron

On Feb. 27, 2013, Idle No More activists ambushed Tom Flanagan, formerly a key adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a professor at the University of Calgary, at a policy event titled, “Is it Time to Reconsider the Indian Act?” When activist Levi Little Mustache posed an off-topic question about child pornography, another activist, Arnell Tailfeathers, pressed the record button. They were not disappointed when Flanagan made remarks that could be exploited, and a YouTube clip was quickly posted under the caption, “Flanagan OK with child pornography.” An audible “gothca, Tom” is part of the recording.

By the time Flanagan found out about the video the next day, he had already been denounced by Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith, the Prime Minister’s Office, Reform Party founder Preston Manning and then-Alberta Premier Alison Redford. Meanwhile, the CBC terminated his contract, and the University of Calgary rejected his remarks, gratuitously adding that Flanagan was about to retire anyway. Speaking invitations were revoked and a 10-day media frenzy ensued before the fury surrounding the “Incident”—as Flanagan called it—was spent.

Explaining the rank unfairness of it all is part of the goal of Flanagan’s book, Persona Non Grata, The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (McClelland & Stewart). The activists had done their homework—the bait had its roots in less notorious remarks by Flanagan in 2009. He saw his response to the 2013 audience as an invitation to debate child pornography and not the declaration of a point of view. Technological opportunity, malice, his swift denunciation by politicians and the dynamics of news-making today combined to transform academic observations into a take-down of major proportions.

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Persona Non Grata considers how these “debating points” assumed such a destructive force. The moral panic surrounding child pornography and the imperative to pounce on outliers was certainly a factor. The means to exploit the situation by posting an unedited and de-contextualized YouTube clip was another. And then there was the pack instinct that drove those who piled on to maximize this unguarded moment.

Clearly the “Incident” might not have occurred if Flanagan had forged stronger bonds of loyalty. Here he learned just how disposable he was to those he served. To be unconditionally and unceremoniously cut loose, without a single inquiry being made, speaks to the company Flanagan courted and kept.

In hindsight, Flanagan realized that his years in public life “dangerously exposed” him to a “mobbing.” Yes, he made enemies over time, including and especially among Aboriginal activists. Self-reflectively he observed, “I probably pay too much attention to abstract ideas, not enough to real people.” Here, he discovered what it was like to be hoist by his own petard.

More ominously, Flanagan tells of working for Harper from 2001 to 2005 and building the system of political ruthlessness that enabled the Conservatives to win. In an ironic “gotcha,” he was felled by the same tactics and victimized in part by his own legacy as “godfather of big money fundraising and negative advertising.”

Now retired from university life, Flanagan is wistful that he just wanted to be a university teacher, researcher and a policy wonk, and a chapter on academic freedom fittingly shows how much he prized his life’s work as an academic. Less instructive are two chapters on child pornography, which may have been included to demonstrate that Flanagan has intelligent views on the issue. These chapters also provide the bulk that helps makes Persona Non Grata a book.

The meatiest chapters explore the mechanics of mobbing, the end of privacy and the future of free speech. It is instructive that two Idle No More activists were able to co-opt so many in this take-down—in which Flanagan was flayed mercilessly and almost without respite by media that ran hard with the story of his denouement. True enough, not all joined the fray, and Flanagan points with gratitude to the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Steve Paikin and TVO’s The Agenda, and Maclean’s, all who listened to his side or gave him a voice.

The “Incident” was unquestionably irresistible in the moment. Flanagan had been soundly demonized by his political friends and allies, child pornography is compelling at any time and schadenfreude may have played a role in the trumpeting of such a provocative public figure’s fatal flaw. That said, standard practices like checking the facts, investigating the context, including the source of the clip and asking him what happened were not followed by many who denounced him.

Did reporters and news organizations join the pack so as not to miss a click-bait story? Did they not care either about their own standards of professionalism or their impact on Flanagan? Whatever the news-making capacity of YouTube may be and regardless the motives of those with vendettas, it is fair comment that the media did not live up to their responsibilities in this instance. In the circumstances, it can be asked what the “Incident” might have looked like if Flanagan had been given a chance to explain himself.

Also worth asking in the end is whether Flanagan got what he deserved. For years he thrived in his public role and traded on being a contrarian. When prompted on child pornography at a session on the Indian Act, he chose to offer a point of view and said: “I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures,” for “doing something in which they do not harm another person.”

Even so and to be fair, the fallout was disproportionate to remarks that were offered up as talking points. Flanagan paid dearly for them but tried not to feel sorry for himself. Yet processing the hysteria around the “Incident” is Persona Non Grata’s key takeaway. Flanagan’s primary purpose was not so much to tell a tale of personal injustice as to raise transcending questions about responsibility and how modest a role it can play in news-making today.

Jamie Cameron is a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University whose fields include constitutional law and rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.




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