Persona non grata: the death of free speech in the internet age by Tom Flanagan. McClelland & Stewart: Toronto, ON, 2014.
Reviewed by Nancy E. Black.
Persona non grata, from the Latin, diplomatic meaning: a person no longer welcome in a foreign country, a form of censure applied to diplomats; non-diplomatic meaning: a shunned person, loss of favour, unwelcomed, determined to be non-existent, usually as a consequence for actions deemed culturally, morally, or socially unacceptable.
Persona non grata, based on the personal experiences of Dr. Tom Flanagan – author, lecturer, University of Calgary Political Science professor (on academic leave), former CBC commentator, and former political advisor to Stephen Harper – is a provocative examination of the impact of social media on free speech. His discussion analyzes media, specifically social media and the negative impact on the freedom of speech, and in doing so, sets off alarm bells that should not be ignored.
Flanagan opens by stating that he is already well-known within the academic and First Nations communities for his controversial opinions about Louis Riel and the North-West Rebellion and then recounts the events leading to the Incident. In November of 2009, Flanagan gave a lecture on political campaign ethics for an academic audience in Winnipeg. He spoke without notes, however with his knowledge and permission a student reporter recorded the lecture. During that lecture, Flanagan discussed adversarial political and legal processes, and the value, for the purpose of procedure, of taking a particular position: “we expect lawyers to take positions in the interests of their clients, we don’t expect that these are the thing that the lawyer necessarily believes personally” (p.40). To illustrate his point, he provided a concrete example: “….I can’t remember all the details, but the lawyer had defended somebody accused, I think, of child pornography and Mr. Day suggested the lawyer himself believed it was okay to have child pornography” (p. 41). He notes, that had he stopped at that point, nothing further would have happened, but he “made a sidebar comment” and continued: “That actually would be another interesting debate for a seminar, like what’s wrong with child pornography, in the sense they’re just pictures?…..but I’m not here to debate that today and I don’t have exhibits here, I have to stick to the campaign process” (p. 41). At the time, Flanagan gave this incident no further thought: “though I was often in the news, I never mentioned child pornography again because it wasn’t part of my research and I had no special interest in the subject” (p. 43).
“So that’s how it all started – a couple of sentences about child pornography in the midst of a seventy-five-minute session on campaign ethics. I didn’t state a position; I spontaneously asked a question as a way of punctuating a rather long train of thought. I raised a question about child pornography not because I had anything particular to say about that topic but because I had just been talking about Stockwell Day’s unfortunate experience, and one thing leads to another when you’re speaking extemporaneously……the two-word phrase just pictures was really the source of all the later trouble”, p.41-42.
In retrospect, however this set the stage for the Incident – it was how it all started.
In February 2013, Flanagan gave a presentation on the topic of “Is it time to reconsider the Indian Act?” at the University of Lethbridge for the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs (SACPA). The presentation was forty minutes in length, and as Flanagan notes, it was evident that some members of the audience were present to “denounce” him: “it was completely chaotic, and none of the event organizers were doing anything to restore order….I should have gotten out of there, but I persisted, making small points and corrections when there was a question I could understand and hoping that tempers would cool down” (p. 46). After two and a half hours, the presentation ended and he returned to his hotel “thinking it had been a brutal evening but that it had ended on an upbeat note…no one mentioned to me, the few seconds of dialogue that would dominate the news going forward” (p. 47). Flanagan notes that at some point in the evening, a person asked about the comment about child pornography made in 2009. He admits that had he been thinking politically, rather academically, he would not have “plunged in”, he recalled that he had said something at the previous event: “but on the spur of the moment I couldn’t remember exactly what I had said or what the context was” (p. 48). The response he gave at the 2013 event is found on page 48. Not being present for this event, this reviewer hesitates to venture an opinion on his response, which is likely given in its entirety, yet still must be considered within the context of the entire evening. It does seem apparent, however, that he was caught off guard by a question unrelated to the topic, and drawn from a previous event. As a consequence, based on the text provided, it appears that Flanagan’s response is awkwardly framed and open to inviting various interpretations and reactions. Unbeknownst to Flanagan, the question and the response were recorded, along with the comment: “Gotcha, Tom” (p. 49), which in Flanagan’s words, indicated entrapment.
By offering an opinion, Flanagan unwittingly opened Pandora’s box and set the stage for the Incident which would subsequently unleash a media maelstrom. In a matter of hours, this information and tagline: “Tom Flanagan okay with child pornography” (p. 49), was spreading on social media. The following day, he returned to Calgary, but before he even arrived, the damage had occurred: the University of Calgary, CBC, the Prime Minister’s Office, and various other associations and connections, had denounced and distanced themselves from him. Without benefit of the doubt, Flanagan was found guilty before proven innocent in the media and became persona non grata.
“The Incident also illustrates media trends that are driven more by technology, including the hyper-acceleration of the news cycle and the impact of social media. The extreme speed-up in reporting the news, combined with the replacement of professional standards by a mob mentality, threatens rational discussion on all fronts. You can’t have an intelligent conversation if there is no time for anything except demagogic slogans”, p.8-9.
After recounting the events, Flanagan defends the Incident by presenting reasoned arguments based on principles of academic freedom and teaching, and democracy. He explores the definition and legal parameters of child pornography and notes how misunderstandings and misinterpretations contributed to the reactive rather than reflective responses to his comments. Drawing on other examples (Niall Ferguson, Rob Ford), he discusses the problematic issues related to the right to privacy, political correctness, and condemns social media for creating and contributing to a mob mentality.
Although Flanagan provides a strong defense for his actions and outlines clearly how quickly things spun out of control with detrimental consequences to his reputation; it is unfortunate that at times, the tone shifts from defense to defensive. This work is likely to prompt a variety of responses from readers: indignation, empathy, anger, sympathy – either in support of Flanagan or in support of those who denounced him.
Flanagan’s points about the threat social media poses to freedom of speech are well presented and clearly argued, giving the reader broader perspective and certainly more context against which to assess Flanagan’s comments. However, with respect to the discussion devoted to child pornography, particularly as Flanagan notes this is not part of his research or a subject of special interest to him, the work would have been strengthened if additional references had been made to other academic works on the topic. Sumner’s The Hateful and the Obscene: Studies in the Limits of Free Expression, for example comes to mind for its very thorough and reasoned analysis. In spite of these minor drawbacks, Persona non Grata is an engaging read about an important topic.
Reading this book against the current political climate of the Conservative’s anti-terrorism Bill C-51 brings a different perspective to Flanagan’s discussion that cannot be ignored. Critics and opponents fear this Bill will limit free expression and also threaten privacy by giving broader powers to the RCMP, police, and CSIS to surveil social media and other aspects of the personal lives of citizens. News headlines reference these “sweeping powers” and note that many of us, depending on how the proposed language is interpreted, have already violated the Bill. This reviewer ponders if this review could come under the microscope for the opinions expressed and subject matter under discussion.
“…there are also impacts of social media that are more dubious….there is no editorial control….in my own Incident, social media became the trigger for a mainstream media massacre…it was the epitome of ‘gotcha’ journalism….”, p. 211.
It is ironic that social media, heralded as an effective means to succinctly communicate ideas quickly and broadly – a technological support to advancing free speech – can be completely unforgiving of spur of the moment, off the cuff comments. Instead of promoting academic discussion, social media is used as a tool to condemn ideas and encourage inaccurate conclusions.
What is alarming is the subsequent actions taken based on those conclusions will most likely cause irreparable harm to individuals and signal disaster for free speech. Just ask Tom Flanagan.
Nancy E. Black, PhD
Executive Director, Library Services, Nipissing University and Canadore College
Note: this review is the reviewer’s opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of Nipissing University and Canadore College