The “mobbing” of Tom Flanagan

Universities have as much interest in academic freedom as elected politicians have in free speech

CALGARY, AB, May 2, 2014/ Troy Media/ – A few months ago I wrote about a new book, Winning Power, by my long-time colleague and friend, Tom Flanagan. Yesterday he published another, Persona Non Grata. The first dealt with how he had helped conservative political parties win, or nearly win, power. Among other things, the second records how his benefactors responded to what he called the Incident.

The Incident took place at the University of Lethbridge in February last year. At a raucous discussion of the future of the Indian Act, two Idle No More activists, Arnell Tailfeathers and Leroy Little Mustache, ambushed him by asking him about a statement he made years before regarding child pornography. Tom raised a couple of questions in response. His answer was then edited, decontextualized and posted on YouTube with the tagline that he was “okay with child pornography.”

Mark Twain once said that lies can travel half way around the world while truth is putting its shows on. That certainly happened with the Incident.

Trash gets posted every day on social media. Usually it’s ignored by mainstream media. This time it wasn’t, but nobody did any fact-checking.

What happened next is called mobbing. Ken Westhues at the University of Waterloo has studied academic mobbing. It often begins when a scholar questions prevailing dogmas, which typically triggers a moral panic and various kinds of aggression. It happened to Hugo Meynell a few years ago at the U of C and I have had a brush with the experience. Tom called his mobbing “virtual” because it happened through the Internet. It took about two hours.

The consequences were not virtual in any sense. He was fired from CBC’s Power Politics. He was suspended from the pages of the Globe and Mail. He was denounced by the PMO, by the premier of Alberta, by Danielle Smith, whose election campaign he had recently managed, and by Preston Manning. He was disinvited from academic conferences and speaking events. The semi-scholarly journal, Policy Options, withdrew an offer to publish an article he wrote at the request of the editor, Bruce Wallace. The Minister of Advanced Education, Thomas Lukaszuk, and James Moore, the federal Minister of Canadian Heritage called on the university to fire him. The first press release from the university implied that he had been pushed into early retirement.

None of these people asked themselves how plausible it was that a guy who had been in public life for 25 years would suddenly announce, on the basis of a YouTube video to which he had not responded, that he was “okay with child pornography.” Worse, many of them knew Tom very well, which is to say they knew his character.

Only the National Post offered him space to reply to this barrage of stupidity. Only Maclean’s arranged a feature interview. Only Preston Manning ever apologized.

Of all the remarks issued after the Incident, the worst was the university’s press release. Considering the intensive use of clichés and bad writing, it was doubtless drafted by a PR flack. But the president signed it. It was misleading and likely defamatory. It was certainly disgraceful. Thirteen weeks later, Elizabeth Cannon wrote the faculty association a tepid statement of regret.

The Royal Society of Canada, of which we are both members, did not even comment on the remarks by Lukaszuk or Moore.

The main lesson from Tom’s experience is not that politicians can never be relied on to act honourably but that academic bureaucrats have become junior politicians. They have as much interest in academic freedom as elected politicians have in free speech.

Barry Cooper is a professor at the University of Calgary.

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