Persona Non Grata: How Tom Flanagan went from respected pundit to political pariah
Published Monday, May 5, 2014 12:49PM EDT
Tom Flanagan, a former high-level political adviser who swiftly became a pariah after making comments about child pornography during a university lecture last year, says he's been able to enter a new phase of his life with the support of friends.
Flanagan was speaking at Alberta's University of Lethbridge in February 2013, when a member of the audience asked him to clarify a remark he had made in 2009, in which he suggested that looking at child pornography was acceptable.
Unaware that he was being filmed, Flanagan responded: "I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters. But I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures."
A recording of his remarks were later posted to YouTube, and within hours some of Flanagan's long-time friends and colleagues, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Alberta's Wild Rose Leader Danielle Smith, had condemned him.
Flanagan had once served as a senior adviser to Harper and had helped to run Smith's 2012 election campaign. But hours after the recording went online, both Harper and Smith distanced themselves from him.
The PMO responded calling the remarks "repugnant, ignorant and appalling." And Smith issued a statement saying "There is no language strong enough to condemn Dr. Flanagan's comments."
Flanagan details the entire incident in his new book "Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age," which was released late last month. The Latin phrase "Persona Non Grata" translates into "an unwelcome person" in English.
He told CTV's Canada AM that on the day of the university lecture, he had had no intention of making any sort of statement, and was instead supposed to be lecturing about the Indian Act.
"Out of the blue I was asked this question, which referred to a comment I had made years before in another context," he said.
Eventually, he got "trapped" between speaking at an academic event, and an event that was transformed into a sort of "political attack," he said.
The University of Calgary professor said that it hurt to see Harper and Smith react in the way they did. However, other friends came to his side, noting that they may not have supported his comments but supported his right to make those comments.
"Most of my friends in politics rallied around, that was the good part," he said. "I immediately started to get emails and phone calls from hundreds of people that I knew."
But parts of the book "Persona Non Grata," in which Flanagan describes Harper's character, are raising other questions.
Flanagan has been estranged from the prime minister since he wrote "Harper's Team" in 2007. In that book, Flanagan gave an insider look at the rise of the Conservative Party.
In one paragraph of "Persona Non Grata," Harper is described by Flanagan as follows: "He can be suspicious, secretive and vindictive, prone to sudden eruptions of white-hot rage over meaningless trivia, at other times falling into week-long depressions in which he is incapable of making decisions."
Flanagan said that he included these descriptions of the prime minister because it's relevant to the overall story.
He said that while the book is ultimately about his own experience and not about Harper, it was important to give the reader some “background” as to what may have triggered the PMO’s response.
"It's not a book about the prime minister, it's a book about an incident I went through, and what that incident teaches us about media today and various trends in communications," he said.
He added that he believes it was the response from the PMO that ultimately prompted others to “pile on.”
"To understand why the PMO would do that, I think you have to understand some of the background, so I had to put this in,” he said.
Flanagan said that he's now entered a new period of his life.
"I'm sorry that my relationship with some of these important people turned out badly, but as I say I've got hundreds of old and new friends that are keeping me going,” he said.