Ethics in Journalism: How Accusations Against Jian Ghomeshi Made the CBC Choose Sides

Written and published in 2015, this article has been cross posted.

Content note: frank discussion of violence. Read me first.

On October 26, 2014, acclaimed host of CBC Radio’s popular late-night show, “Q,” released a public statement via Facebook: he had been fired from the public broadcaster because he had engaged in sexual activities “unbecoming of a prominent host on the CBC” (The Star, 2014). He detailed how he had explained to his superiors, using evidence, that he was someone who engaged in “rough” sexual play but that said rough sexual play was always “mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners” (The Star, 2014). His disclosure to the CBC was intended, he said, to address a “risk of [Ghomeshi’s] private sex life being made public as a result of a campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend and a freelance writer.” Despite the fact he was ethical in the way he negotiated his sexual interactions with his partners, said Ghomeshi, the CBC decided to end their professional association with him. Ghomeshi also announced his intention to sue the CBC for $50 million (The Star, 2014). In an article released that night, news outlet The Star detailed sexual assault and harassment claims of three anonymous women, one of whom, a former CBC employee, had worked directly with Jian Ghomeshi (Donovan, CBC fires Jian Ghomeshi over sex allegations, 2014). For their part, CBC circulated an internal memo stating they had learned of an “impropriety” involving an employee, a firing had occurred, this was going to become news, and they could not say more due to pending legal action.

On October 28, musician Owen Pallet, a personal friend of Jian Ghomeshi, released a public statement via his Facebook page that he believed the three women whose identities he did not know (Pallet, 2014). By October 29, the number of accusers had grown to eight, and the first person to allow their identity to be known was actor Lucy DeCoutere (CBC News, 2014). A ninth accuser, Reva Seth, joined DeCoutere on October 30 (Khandaker, 2014), and by November 28 Ghomeshi’s accusers numbered 15 (Donovan, Jian Ghomeshi did not ask for consent, accusers say , 2011). Ghomeshi now faces seven charges of sexual assault and one charge of choking to overcome resistance (Otis, 2015).

While most of the conversation focuses on the allegations against Ghomeshi, portraying him as a violent man who would attack unsuspecting women, this paper will examine the role the CBC may have played in facilitating his abusive behavior, how they could have done better, and the lessons to be learned from how Jian Ghomeshi, the CBC, and other players managed themselves through this scandal.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is Canada’s national public radio and television broadcaster. This brief SWOT analysis touches on some of the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats inherent to the operation of the CBC.

Strengths

The CBC has an extensive presence in Canada, providing services in English, French, and the Indigenous languages of Cree, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, Dene, Tlicho, Chipewyan, North Slavey, South Slavey and Gwich’in, over radio and television. These services include news, entertainment by way of television and radio productions, and documentaries, as well as children’s educational and entertainment programming (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, 2013).

CBC receives funding from the Canadian government to provide services as the official broadcaster in Canada. In addition, the CBC is able to earn revenue from advertisers. As such, CBC radio offers programming with minimal interruption from advertisers, which stands to increase the size of their audience who, it can be argued, would prefer fewer interruptions from advertisers (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, 2013).

The broadcaster has stations across Canada, allowing it to provide news coverage that is fast, topical, accurate, and of local and national importance. Additionally, CBC provides content for Air Canada’s in-flight entertainment (Air Canada, 2015).

CBC can be accessed virtually anywhere: free-to-air radio and television, cable television, as well as satellite and Internet radio accessible by computer, smartphone applications, and much of their network programming is available as podcasts, either streamed live or downloaded to a variety of device platforms.

As the largest broadcast news gatherer in Canada, CBC has a strong market presence, and is “currently available to about 99% of the Canadian population” (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, 2013).

CBC has numerous popular programs, such as “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” – a news-parody program responsible for the popularity of Rick Mercer, an outspoken comedian and political commentator. The broadcaster has also maintained control over Canadian broadcasting of hockey games since 1952 (CBC Sports, 2013).

CBC also engages in merchandising, profiting from the image of popular CBC personalities, such as environmental activist Dr. David Suzuki, their distinguishable logo, DVD sales, and their “Hockey Night In Canada” brand (CBC, 2015).

Weaknesses

As part of its funding agreement with the Canadian government, CBC must provide content that suits public national interests, a vaguely defined qualification that includes – but is not limited to – requirements for Canadian content (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, 2013). As such, CBC is disallowed from airing content solely based on audience interests, and may lose viewers while that content airs. Viewers may remain tuned in to other stations that do not face the same restrictions.

The CBC gets much of its funding from the Canadian government, and this funding is subject to approval on an annual basis. For instance, the CBC has been granted so-called “one-time” funding of programming for several years in a row amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, 2013). As a result of the mandate of the CBC and its funding structure, the CBC faces numerous financial challenges and is unsustainable in its current form (CBC/Radio-Canada, 2014).

The CBC’s annual government funding has been decreased by more than $160 million, and is expected to face further decreases in funding as time goes by (CBC/Radio-Canada, 2015), yet its prescribed programming mandate remains unchanged (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, 2013).

Opportunities

CBC had exclusive broadcast rights for NHL games in Canada, but took advantage of competitor demand by making a deal that allows Rogers to limited televising of games (CBC Sports, 2013).

As technological advances continue to be made, CBC can expand its market share by accessing new platforms for their broadcast services.

Threats

The CBC’s federal funding has been cut several times in recent years, under the direction of a government widely believed to be not in favour of the broadcaster receiving public monies, and public support of that stance has increased (Kirkup, 2011). Funding cuts are expected to continue for as long as Stephen Harper remains prime minister (Morrison, 2009). Funding cuts the CBC has been subjected to have caused the CBC to divest itself from certain interests, including competing for the rights to broadcast professional sports (CBC News, 2014), giving a significant advantage to competitor television and radio stations.

The External Environment

Canadian attitudes toward sexual assault – and, in particular, the victim-blaming phenomenon associated with it – have experienced an evolution over the last few years due to formal and informal awareness and education programs. When a Toronto police officer suggested women could avoid sexual assault by “not dressing like sluts” (Kwan, 2011), he spawned a backlash felt all over the world. Slutwak, the movement inspired by the comments of Constable Michael Sanguinetti, has resonated with women all over the world, with over 200 countries having hosted events meant to address attitudes in law enforcement, courts, and the general public (Slutwalk Toronto). A month after the Toronto incident, Justice Robert Dewar appeared to blame the victim in his statement on conviction of Kenneth Rhodes. Rhodes had sexually assaulted a 26 year-old woman in Thompson, Manitoba. After Dewar remarked that “sex was in the air” and made mention of the victim’s attire and intent to “party” the night of the assault, a student-organized rally calling for his resignation was held (Kusch, 2011). Like Sanguinetti, Dewar gained notoriety for his remarks, becoming the subject of headlines across Canada and the United States (Ryan, 2011).

In this changing climate of understanding, many programs designed to enhance safety have been developed. Don’t Be That Guy (The Violence Stops Here) and Draw-The-Line (Draw-The-Line) offer education on preventing and intervening in violence against women and sexual harassment. Hollaback!, a program that originated to confront street harassment in New York, has grown to include chapters all over the world (Hollaback!), and TheBestDefenseProgram.com, out of Manitoba, instructs individuals and groups in the identification and prevention of violence, as well as methods of intervention (TheBestDefenseProgram.com). Initiatives such as these can be considered a direct response to a culture that enables perpetrators of violence, and their increasing popularity speaks to a readiness within the general public to take part in combatting violence and micro-aggressions.

This evolution in our understanding of sexual assault and victim-blaming may have contributed to the willingness of Ghomeshi’s victims to speak out, as well as to the way the CBC ultimately dealt with Ghomeshi. Ironically, however, if Ghomeshi had not approached the executives of the CBC with his fear of allegations, they may never have heard of them; the reluctance of his accusers to be publicly named had made reporter Kevin Donovan decide not to run his story, changing his mind only after Ghomeshi announced he had been fired (Donovan, CBC fires Jian Ghomeshi over sex allegations, 2014).

The Breach

In her account of the sexual harassment she was subjected to by Jian Ghomeshi, Kathryn Borel, described Ghomeshi putting his hands on her while thrusting against her buttocks and telling her he wanted to “hate fuck” her. When Ms. Borel complained to her union representative, no notes were taken. According to Ms. Borel, a discussion initiated by the union representative between Ms. Borel and Q producer Arif Noorani culminated in advice to figure out “how to cope with [Ghomeshi’s abuse]” because, “Ghomeshi was the way he was” (Borel, 2014). This is a violation of CBC’s policy against sexual harassment, a policy mandated by federal statute (Minister of Justice, 2014) since the CBC is a Crown Corporation. From an ethical standpoint, when the CBC failed to properly address the allegations made by Borel, they conceivably allowed the abuse of other women to remain unchecked; a properly investigated complaint may have identified predatory behaviour prior to another woman being victimized, saving numerous women from sexual assault.

If the allegations against the CBC are true, the organization failed its stakeholders, including actor Lucy DeCoutere who met Ghomeshi at a media function. Ghomeshi may not have been in attendance were it not for his position with CBC. Had the CBC represented itself as a safe place for victims to disclose – whether through enforcement of their existing policies or education and training around sexual harassment in the workplace – it is possible there would not be 15 different women with reason to accuse Jian Ghomeshi of harming them, as predatory behaviour would have been pointed out for others to see (Spencer, 2014). Without taking steps to improve the attitudes toward sexual assault that support treatment of victims and offenders alike, offenders will continue to offend, and victims will continue to be victimized and re-victimized (Mehler Paperny, 2015).

Supporting Their Actions

For his part, Jian Ghomeshi denies the allegations against him. His only public statements on the allegations suggest a conspiracy between a jilted ex-girlfriend and a reporter seeking to further a journalism career (The Star, 2014). Ghomeshi also hired crisis management firm Navigator early on and, under their guidance, Ghomeshi released statements that each of his accusers had engaged in “rough sex” with him consensually, and Ghomeshi filed suit against the CBC for $55 million. Ghomeshi’s lawsuit was presumed by some to be a way of instilling fear in his accusers, warning them the same could happen to them, while also allowing him to enter statements into public record that supported his side of the story. The lawsuit was later withdrawn, lending credibility to this explanation (Levitt, 2014). Navigator, when more accusers came forward, refused to represent Ghomeshi any further, as did public relations firm Rocket Promotions (Freeman, 2014). Public support for Ghomeshi had already been secured, however (Pastor Dieter’s Musings, 2014).

CBC has placed two executives on leave pending the outcome of an investigation; Chris Boyce, executive director of CBC Radio and Audio, and Todd Spencer, executive director of human resources, are on leave until further notice (McWilliams, 2015). Arif Noorani, the producer who told Ms. Borel she would have to figure out a way to “cope with” Ghomeshi, was removed from Q and placed in charge of another project (The Canadian Press, 2014). It is presumed the managers who failed to act did so in order to protect a valuable CBC asset – that being Jian Ghomeshi.

The union for CBC employees, the Canadian Media Guild, denied any involvement in Ms. Borel’s complaint, stating the representative she spoke to was not an employee of the union and had never forwarded her complaints on to the union (Borel, 2014).

Each of the victims who have disclosed, whether anonymously or with their identities known, has said they feared for their wellbeing if they had come forward with allegations sooner, whether due to lawsuits like the one filed against CBC or through job loss (Borel, 2014). Long before allegations against Ghomeshi became public, his predatory behaviour was well known in the Winnipeg music scene, with many members – whether musicians or other, periphery members – giving each other warnings of how he treated women (Martin, 2014). Others feared not being believed or being blamed, and many wondered what they might have done to give Ghomeshi the indication his treatment of them was acceptable (Mehta, 2014) (Khandaker, 2014) (Borel, 2014). These fears and misattributions can be attributed to a culture of victim-blaming (Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness, 2014).

Conclusion

Allegations of sexual assault against anyone, regardless of position, deserve an impartial investigation into the conduct of the accused. So, too, do allegations of harassment. That said, potential victims of these types of abuse deserve protection first, and protection in the form of strongly worded policies is not enough. By combining policies with Counter-Violence & Advocacy Training, staff members are empowered to reduce victim-blaming, identify problematic behaviour, and to intervene in ways that increase workplace safety while decreasing employer liability. Had someone in Ghomeshi’s workplace been trained to be an advocate and an ally, predatory behaviour may have been exposed sooner, the women he is alleged to have preyed upon would have been safer, and a powerful message could have been sent to CBC stakeholders – including the Canadian public at large – about how to deal with the predators in our midst.

Addendum: Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of all charges in March of 2016 (Guardian.com, 2016).