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Presumed guilty

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

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When the Harper Conservatives made a last-minute name change to their now-infamous 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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, May 3, 2014 at 7:54 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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