Pre­sumed guilty

Ex-Harper ad­viser de­tails on­line am­bush by ac­tivists — and his old boss

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Sheilla Jones

WHEN the Harper Con­ser­va­tives made a last-minute name change to their now­in­fa­mous on­line sur­veil­lance bill, “Pro­tect­ing Chil­dren from In­ter­net Preda­tors Act,” they de­lib­er­ately ex­ploited moral panic over child pornog­ra­phy. Nowhere in Bill C-30 were “In­ter­net preda­tors” men­tioned. The new ti­tle was in­tended to ren­der the con­tents of the bill be­yond ques­tion­ing. The Con­ser­va­tives, how­ever, over­played their hand. Then-pub­lic safety min­is­ter Vic Toews re­sponded to ques­tions in Par­lia­ment about the bill with his equally in­fa­mous “ei­ther stand with us or with the child pornog­ra­phers.” The at­tempt to fan moral panic over child pornog­ra­phy as a means to sti­fle any mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion back­fired. But moral panic can be very use­ful for politi­cians. The Bill C-30 ploy was no ac­ci­dent, ac­cord­ing to Cana­dian au­thor and po­lit­i­cal strate­gist Tom Flana­gan in his lat­est book, Per­sona Non Grata. Con­ser­va­tives, he says, “have in­vested most heav­ily in ex­ploit­ing the moral panic over child pornog­ra­phy... Moral panic is par­tic­u­larly con­ducive to the po­lit­i­cal seizure of de­bate.”

It’s there­fore not sur­pris­ing that the Con­ser­va­tives were first out of the gate in the vir­tual mob­bing of Flana­gan over what he ap­peared to say about child pornog­ra­phy in a YouTube video posted in Fe­bru­ary 2013. It was, said Flana­gan, to score po­lit­i­cal points and ex­act re­venge. Flana­gan de­scribes the “In­ci­dent,” as he calls it, as a de­lib­er­ate am­bush by Idle No More ac­tivists at a talk on the In­dian Act he was giv­ing at the Univer­sity of Leth­bridge. Flana­gan has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on abo­rig­i­nal is­sues, and knew ac­tivists viewed him “as a po­lit­i­cal en­emy to be de­stroyed if pos­si­ble.” As a for­mer se­nior ad­viser to Stephen Harper’s Con­ser­va­tives from 2002 to 2006, and hav­ing run the nearly suc­cess­ful cam­paign for Danielle Smith’s Wil­drose Party of Al­berta in 2012, Flana­gan showed a re­mark­able lack of po­lit­i­cal savvy in deal­ing with the trap laid for him. The ac­tivists found an on­line post­ing of an off­hand re­mark about child pornog­ra­phy Flana­gan had made at a 2009 event and used it at the Leth­bridge event to bait him. They then up­loaded a cell­phone video clip overnight show­ing Flana­gan clum­sily ex­plain­ing his con­cern about ab­so­lutism in sen­tenc­ing for pos­ses­sion of child pornog­ra­phy, with the tagline “Tom Flana­gan OK with child pornog­ra­phy.” Flana­gan drove home to Cal­gary the next morn­ing, obliv­i­ous to the me­dia firestorm that was erupt­ing. By be­ing so in­vested in moral panic, notes Flana­gan in his re­count­ing of the In­ci­dent, Con­ser­va­tives could not af­ford to be caught off­side, and is­sued im­me­di­ate moral con­dem­na­tion in the strong­est lan­guage pos­si­ble. It didn’t mat­ter what Flana­gan had re­ally said, and they didn’t ask him. Within an hour of the story about the YouTube clip go­ing pub­lic, the on­line mob­bing was un­der­way. The Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice was first to get the knife in, with a tweet declar­ing Flana­gan’s com­ments “re­pug­nant, ig­no­rant and ap­palling.” Then-Al­berta Con­ser­va­tive pre­mier Al­li­son Red­ford twisted the knife, say­ing she was “ab­so­lutely disgusted,” while Wil­drose party leader Smith im­me­di­ately cut ties with Flana­gan, stat­ing there was “no lan­guage strong enough to con­demn Dr. Flana­gan’s com­ments.” Even Pre­ston Man­ning got into the act. By the time Flana­gan ar­rived at his Univer­sity of Cal­gary of­fice just be­fore noon, the fe­roc­ity of the on­line mob­bing had shred­ded his rep­u­ta­tion. He was fired from CBC’s Power and Pol­i­tics panel, had speak­ing en­gage­ments can­celled and was es­sen­tially dis­owned by his own univer­sity. He was, in­deed, per­sona non grata. Flana­gan has proved adept at shed­ding light on the in­ter­nal machi­na­tions of Con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics through his ear­lier books, Win­ning Power: Cana­dian Cam­paign­ing in the Twenty-First Century (2014) and Harper’s Team: Be­hind the Scenes in the Con­ser­va­tive Rise to Power (2007). This lat­est book pro­vides in­sight into the po­lit­i­cal lev­er­ag­ing of moral panic, and a rea­soned and in­sight­ful look at the pol­i­tics of child pornog­ra­phy, an is­sue about which Flana­gan says he knew lit­tle un­til he started re­search­ing it af­ter the in­ci­dent. If you want to know what he re­ally said that got him into so much trou­ble and why he said it, it’s all in the book. No one ends up look­ing good: not politi­cians, the me­dia nor Flana­gan him­self. He pre­sents a well-writ­ten and in­sight­ful ac­count of his po­lit­i­cal mis­ad­ven­ture in Per­sona Non Grata, but takes the role of vic­tim — a pri­vate cit­i­zen am­bushed on­line us­ing “a recorded snip­pet stripped of its con­text” and de­lib­er­ately mis­rep­re­sented. This seems a bit rich com­ing from a long­time po­lit­i­cal ad­viser for a party known for its en­thu­si­as­tic char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tions and smear cam­paigns. But now he knows what it’s like to be on the re­ceiv­ing end. Sheilla Jones is a for­mer po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor and

an un­re­pen­tant po­lit­i­cal junkie.


Tom Flana­gan’s sec­ond book of 2014 de­tails what he calls the ‘In­ci­dent.’

Per­sona Non Grata:

The Death of Free Speech in the In­ter­net Age

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.