Flanagan Wrecks

A conservative leader felled by shameful reporting—and hubris

We can all agree on one thing: what the scholar, political consultant and sometime social pariah Tom Flanagan calls the Incident is a cautionary tale. A man muses in passing on the wisdom of jail time for consumers of child pornography, and finds himself the next day engulfed by a braying cyberspace mob, enduring the loss of friends, income and reputation, to a drumroll of public denunciations by people he had served. Thanks to a single video clip posted over a maliciously slanted caption, Flanagan was portrayed repeatedly as someone who had no objection to child pornography and possibly even had a taste for it himself. There has to be a lesson or two here.

But it is possible to disagree on exactly what the Incident cautions us against. Flanagan derives any number of lessons from it in his book Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age. Many of them acknowledge his own failings, although even more are directed to Canada’s media. Without coming anywhere close to Maoist self-criticism, he does confess to a lack of caution and consideration for people’s feelings, even to some naiveté. Turning to others, he comes up with a suggested code of conduct for journalists at the end. (His suggestions are fairly close to existing codes of conduct for many news outlets. The problem is enforcing them, given the pressures of time, understaffing and owners’ actual priorities.)

Still, his readers may find themselves identifying a few moral messages that Flanagan fails to notice. I, for instance, found myself concluding that hubris still leads to tragedy and that there really is such a thing as poetic justice.

You may well feel you already know enough about Tom Flanagan and the Incident, since they have received floods of attention over the past 18 months. Nonetheless, anyone reviewing this book has to retrace the facts. Why? Because of something an acquaintance said to me when Flanagan spoke with TVO host Steve Paikin at a Toronto library in May. I was there to try to get a sense of Flanagan as a person. She was there to decide whether or not he was a pedophile. She had retained the impression left by the media’s original, inaccurate coverage of the Incident. What she remembered was that Flanagan had admitted to receiving mail from NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association.

That is why Flanagan was right to publish this book. He was pilloried, repeatedly, for something he never said—that child pornography causes no harm—and because his name landed on a mailing list. That is scary for everyone. No one speaks with careful thought and perfect clarity all the time. Nor do we control all the mail we receive. On the basis of emails sent to me before my computer system refined its spam filters, you would assume two of my great interests were expanding the male organ I do not possess and meeting hot Russian babes. Moreover, flawed news reports never really die; apparently a lot of otherwise well-informed Canadians still believe that Flanagan confessed to a personal weakness for child ­pornography.

So let’s be clear: he did no such thing. On February 27, 2013, Flanagan addressed a session of the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs at the University of Lethbridge on one of his favourite topics, “Is It Time to Reconsider the Indian Act?” (Here is how pervasive misinformation is: at the time of writing, Flanagan’s Wikipedia entry implied the discussion was about child ­pornography.)

Note that Flanagan’s position on the lecture’s actual topic, articulated many times over the years, is that Canada’s First Nations (a term he rejects) are actually its first immigrants, that there is no reason to allow them special status and that the best route to improving their economic status would be assimilation. Given that, plus his history of debunking Native land claims and the iconic status of Louis Riel, the Idle No More movement was out in force for the lecture.

In the question period, a man named Levi Little Moustache made a speech that contained several questions, including: Was Tom Flanagan really the father of the IKEA monkey (a reference to a facetious exchange on Evan Solomon’s Power and Politics)? Did he stand by a previous remark about child pornography?

That question was a trap and Flanagan leapt into it—a moment captured on video. You can find his full response on YouTube at <www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqS4qKkE_SY>. It included the statement, “I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures.” He threw in the unnecessary information that he had received mailings from NAMBLA. You can hear the videographer, Arnell Tailfeathers, saying, “Gotcha, Tom.” You bet: Tailfeathers uploaded the video clip over the caption “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography.”

Flanagan does note one lesson at this point: He should have been thinking politically, not academically. He should not have tried to answer the question. So he was already in trouble, but not major-league trouble. This is not Oedipus Rex or Macbeth; the die was not yet cast.

What sealed his doom was his attempt to live for the next twelve hours or so like a private person, instead of someone in politics. He had no cell phone with him. He did not maintain communication with the outside world. He did scan his email over breakfast at his motel the next day, but no alarm bells went off as he read an email “excoriating my views on child pornography.” As he drove back to Calgary, listening to a Sue Grafton mystery on audiotape, his car phone rang (his wife had given out the number, which he seldom shared) with the news that Alberta’s Wildrose Party had already disowned and condemned him for his remarks the night before.

By the time he reached his office around noon, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Premier of Alberta and the Manning Centre had publicly rebuked him and—where he had ties—cut him loose. In short order, the University of Calgary distanced itself from him in a press release, including the unrelated information that he was going to retire soon anyway. The CBC fired him from Power and Politics. Some of these people and agencies, plus a stampede of journalists, had all been trying to reach him, but he had not checked his voice mail.

That is one of the Incident’s many ironies: In his 2007 book, Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power, Flanagan warned Conservative political staff and candidates of the need “to keep in constant touch with the media.”

Flanagan has a defence for that, which I will get to after noting another possible irony. In the movie Patton, George C. Scott, having out-manoeuvred the German General Erwin Rommel using his own tactics, screams into the desert: “Rommel … you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” I think someone in Idle No More may well have read Harper’s Team. They followed Flanagan’s advice “to conduct thorough opposition research and make use of the results”; they counted on his inability “to exercise strict discipline at all levels”; and they remembered his dictum that “the media are unforgiving of conservative errors.” Gotcha, Tom, indeed.

So what is his line of defence? The main one, which is inarguable, is that journalists failed to do their job. They could not reach him for a few hours after the video came to their attention, so they published what they had. Once the “OK with child pornography” line was established, most reporters and commentators never bothered to check it—even months later. The internet bestows eternal life on misinformation.

So the media rushed to pillory him for something he had not actually said. As far as I can remember, George Orwell is one of the few writers not cited in this book (you will find Kafka, Philip Roth, Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Tennessee Williams and the Beatles), but essentially, Flanagan was convicted, without trial, of Thought Crime. In yet another of the avalanche of ironies about this story, the quintessential Canadian conservative was skewered for presenting an argument more familiar on the Left: we put too many people in jail, often for the wrong reasons.

(My own position here is not entirely comfortable, since I am on the record urging Ryerson University, my employer, not to renew the contract of a former colleague who had advocated man/boy sex. But Gerald Hannon had claimed in an article to have eavesdropped passively while an adult had sex with a twelve-year-old boy, an illegal act. Without that, I would have had to keep my mouth shut, ironically enough in the name of free speech.)

Here is yet another irony: a consultant who had advocated—with great enthusiasm—using new media and technologies to spread the Conservative message and consolidate power was now the victim of precisely those media and technologies. It is almost creepy, the way that the Incident kept hoisting Flanagan on his own petard.

Because of Flanagan’s age and career, by the way, his focus is on the traditional media that fed off the YouTube clip and consequent Twitter outrage. Even that now verges on the quaint. Were he younger—Paris Hilton, say, or Justin Bieber—he would recognize that newspapers and television news are almost irrelevant: for the young, YouTube and Twitter are the media.

With the benefit of bitter hindsight, today Flanagan does ponder the destructive effects of instant, universal communication, but rather less eloquently than another victim of unrestrained media bashing who wrote recently:

No one, it seems, can escape the unforgiving gaze of the Internet, where gossip, half-truths, and lies take root and fester. We have created, to borrow a term from historian Nicolaus Mills, a “culture of humiliation” … We may not have become a crueler society—although it sure feels as if we have—but the Internet has seismically shifted the tone of our interactions. The ease, the speed, and the distance that our electronic devices afford us can also make us colder, more glib, and less concerned about the consequences of our pranks and prejudice.

Thank you, Monica Lewinsky.

Flanagan’s second, more individual point is that he thought he was speaking as an academic, not as a political representative. He had managed to retain the belief that he could simply change hats at will—morphing from academic to politico to pundit with the ease of Odo, the Shapeshifter in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. That is a crucial element in his self-defence: he was no longer working as a political consultant and, therefore, his remarks did not belong in the rough-and-tumble public forum.

Hooey, I say. Flanagan appeared regularly on the CBC and elsewhere to discuss politics. I have been a chase producer: his main attraction was not his academic credentials but his position, even if former, as a political insider. TV journalists do not hunt for panelists who can explain the theories of the late economist Friedrich Hayek. They want guests who can speculate on what is going through the prime minister’s mind or the slant of the next round of negative ads.

Moreover, Flanagan is not just an academic who occasionally dabbled in politics. His influence on the Canadian political landscape can hardly be exaggerated. In a profile in The Walrus as early as 2004, Marci McDonald countered the image of Flanagan as Stephen Harper’s Rasputin by quoting Ezra Levant, who suggested Flanagan was more like the godfather of Canada’s conservative intellectual mafia, “Don Tomaso.” In Harper’s Team and elsewhere, Flanagan has proclaimed plans that might raise some hackles, plans to make Canada a conservative (and Conservative) country. Once you have proposed something that grandiose—and had enormous success with it—I think you have forfeited your right to whip on your detached, harmless professor cap at will. You are a target, for life, and Flanagan is too smart not to have known that.

Where does this leave us? The media, the University of Calgary and Flanagan’s former allies behaved shamefully. The man was wronged. So why, having read the book, do I feel so little personal sympathy for him?

I think the answer emerges in his first chapter, “Courting Controversy.” It is seductively interesting—Flanagan’s style is always clear and lively, without the taint of academic jargon and obfuscation. But even here, in a book about his martyrdom, he cannot keep his itchy little paws from the occasional swipe. So he supported Brian Mulroney until he became “disillusioned by his pandering to Quebec.” Ryerson professor Pamela Palmater is “the Idle No More diva.” Flanagan has, as he admits, a combative personality. He can certainly dish it out.

He tries to show that he can take it, too, but he does not always succeed. He tries to keep that upper lip stiff, but it keeps betraying him with a telltale quiver. He follows the brave admission “So you can say I was the author of my own misfortune” with the sentence “I was a private person, invited because of my past writings to give a talk to a particular audience.” You can sense that lip starting to vibrate as he writes of his isolation, unprotected by a political party, pushed on to the ice floe by his own university. It reminds me of the excuse he so often uses to justify his own advocacy (and former practice) of ethically questionable political tactics: the Liberals started it. Welcome to the schoolyard.

At the Toronto library interview, Flanagan was briefly overcome as he remembered his ordeal. As a lifelong liberal, I should have been moved by the sight of a proud man expressing his pain openly. But Flanagan somehow taps my inner conservative. I found myself recalling his own words about toughness in Harper’s Team: “People expect Conservatives to be tough … They look ridiculous if they go around snivelling and complaining about fairness every time an opponent takes a shot at them … Leave the whining to the utopians who fantasize about conflict-free societies.” To which I would now say: Amen.