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Tom Flanagan in his office at the University of Calgary. (Todd Korol For The Globe and Mail)
Tom Flanagan in his office at the University of Calgary. (Todd Korol For The Globe and Mail)

How Tom Flanagan went from respected political scientist to pariah Add to ...

One sunny winter morning last year, Tom Flanagan got in his car to drive back to Calgary from the University of Lethbridge, where he had given a talk the night before. The topic was the Indian Act, and the crowd, which included a number of native activists, had been unusually hostile. Still, he felt he’d handled it well. “I was feeling quite relaxed,” he recalls.

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As he should have. When Mr. Flanagan started the two-hour drive, he was a respected political scientist and author, a sought-after commentator in the media with a regular spot on CBC Television, and an effective Conservative political activist who had once served as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff.

Before the drive was halfway over, he was a pariah. He would be denounced by the Prime Minister’s Office and other former political allies. By the end of the day, his employer of 45 years, the University of Calgary, would trash him. The CBC would fire him as a commentator. In the days to come, he would be disinvited from speaking engagements across North America.

All were reacting to a video clip from the Lethbridge talk that had been posted on YouTube. In it, Mr. Flanagan is seen responding to a question from out of the blue about child pornography. The headline on the cellphone video was: “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography.”

He had said no such thing. But the clip – or rather, the headline – ignited a media firestorm. When people couldn’t reach him right away, they didn’t bother to wait to react. Mr. Flanagan’s car phone rang – a rare event, since hardly anyone had the number. On the line were two men who worked for Danielle Smith, the leader of the Wildrose Party. Mr. Flanagan had worked hard to help build Ms. Smith’s fledgling party into a credible political force in 2008. But now, they told him coldly, he was through. She was cutting him off and about to issue a public denunciation.

The Prime Minister’s communications director, Andrew McDougall, took care of it with a tweet. “Tom Flanagan’s comments on child pornography are repugnant, ignorant, and appalling,” it said.

Mr. Flanagan was used to controversy. He is widely loathed among aboriginal activists for acting as an expert government witness in land-claim cases. Along with Mr. Harper, he was one of the signatories of the notorious “firewall” letter that called for Alberta to cut itself off from Ottawa and keep all its wealth in-province. He enjoyed flaunting his enormous buffalo-skin coat on TV, just to tweak the easterners. He proudly calls himself a natural contrarian.

But this was different. Nobody in power had bothered to speak with him. He never had a chance to defend himself. He was the victim of a ruthless politics of expediency that would almost destroy him – a politics he now ruefully admits was partly of his own creation.

The return of human sacrifice

Mr. Flanagan’s new book, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age, is remarkably free of revenge or bitterness. “Writing the book was not for me a therapeutic or emotional thing,” he told me. “It was only through writing the book that I came to an understanding of what happened.”

The most powerful theme of his book is a how a changing political culture has interacted with new media to create a toxic environment in which people are executed in the public square when they become inconvenient. “Damage control is a big part of politics today,” he says. “There’s a demand for virtually instantaneous action. So human sacrifice has become institutionalized.”

Twenty years ago, there would have been no story, no incident. There were no cellphones to capture casual remarks, no YouTube to post them on. If Mr. Flanagan’s comments had somehow come to light, reporters would have called him to get his side of the story. The PMO would have responded with a measured, formal statement, not a tweet.

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