Jian Ghomeshi was standing in a corner, checking his phone. Dark jacket, tight dark shirt, two top buttons open. Around him swirled many of Toronto’s best-known faces, including television personality Jeanne Beker and former governor general Adrienne Clarkson.
It was Sunday, Sept. 7, at the Four Seasons Hotel at Toronto, less than two months before the CBC host of Q would be accused publicly of sexual assault by women who spoke to the Toronto Star. A police probe is underway.
I had been trying to talk to Ghomeshi since June about our investigation into these serious allegations, hoping he would sit down and give his side of the story.
Ghomeshi had responded politely just over a month before to my stern but pleasant attempts to get him to talk. In a chatty, upbeat voicemail he said he would not meet with me. He dismissed the allegations as untrue and asked me to talk to his lawyers.
Working with freelancer Jesse Brown, who brought the original allegations to the Star, I had in June sent Ghomeshi two letters detailing the allegations against him. Ghomeshi’s lawyers responded with letters saying that everything Ghomeshi had done in his sex life was consensual. And so, along with many other investigations the Star undertakes, this one was continuing. Sometimes it is best to play what I call the “long game.”
And now a strange twist was going to give me an hour or two with the man that women said beat and choked them without consent.
The event was a dinner with film star Michael Douglas, put on by journalist Tina Brown and sponsored by Credit Suisse. Brown would interview Douglas about his life. All part of the Toronto International Film Festival. To this day I have no idea why I was invited. Going out on a Sunday night is not my preference but our son was away at university and our daughter was on a leadership trip. My wife and I headed to the Four Seasons.
At the cocktail portion of the event, my wife spotted Ghomeshi in a corner, on his own. Knowing that the Q host was someone I was investigating, she suggested we check our table assignments, “just in case.” With 150 people at the event, I could not imagine we would be at the same table.
We were. Small name cards showed that Ghomeshi would be seated between us at a table near the back of the room as far from the stage as you could get.
“Nice to finally meet you, Mr. Ghomeshi,” I said when he walked over to our table. “This is quite interesting.” Around us, other guests were taking their seats. Michael Douglas was at the head table with journalist Tina Brown, once the editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.
Ghomeshi’s eyes widened, looking at my name card and then at me. “I’d say. This will be awkward.” He looked towards the exit.
“It doesn’t have to be,” I told him, “though this may be an opportunity to tell me your side of things.” I put out my hand and he shook it. I recall his handshake was moist and limp.
Ghomeshi sat down. “How is your book doing?”
Now that was an interesting question. With it, I saw Ghomeshi relax. He’s a polished interviewer and he had done his research. I told him that when you self-publish a mystery, it’s a tough slog to get traction in an industry still dominated by the traditional publishing model.
Wine was served. Ghomeshi asked for some but did not drink. That jived with what the alleged victims had told us: Ghomeshi was not much of a drinker. For the record, I only had a couple of sips, realizing that I was, out of necessity, on the job.
Others at the table were talking about the night, TIFF, the weather. Nobody was paying attention to us.
So that readers understand what was going through my head, here is some insight into what the Toronto Star’s investigative team does. We receive hundreds of tips a year — people coming forward with suggestions of what we should investigate. The Ghomeshi assault allegations were one of those tips and when Canadaland podcaster Jesse Brown brought his preliminary research to editor Michael Cooke in May, and I was brought in, my jaw literally dropped.
Before such allegations can be published, a great deal of research and due diligence has to be done and you must present your findings to the other side. That was something that would take time and a bit of luck.
By the time of that dinner, I had heard with my own ears allegations from women of vile, abusive conduct. I had also talked to people who had worked with Ghomeshi at CBC who said he was a gentle, kind soul. The goal of the investigation was to find out which side was true. I now know that Ghomeshi was being advised all summer by crisis communications firm Navigator.
I had never met Ghomeshi before. I first became aware of him when he did his now famous interview with Billy Bob Thornton in 2009, during which Ghomeshi quite rightly (I thought) talked about the man’s movie career even though Thornton’s people had apparently said Ghomeshi was only to talk about a band Thornton was in. It was an uncomfortable interview and I started listening to Q soon after. I was impressed by Ghomeshi, a musician who was a pretty darned good interviewer.
When the salad course arrived that night at the Four Seasons, Ghomeshi began asking my wife and me about our children after I mentioned them in conversation. The women complaining about his conduct also said Ghomeshi would often tell them “you are the one,” and particularly, in recent years, lament that he would be an “old, fat soccer dad” if he managed to settle down. Ghomeshi is 47.
Knowing of his concerns, I asked Ghomeshi about them.
“I am fat,” he said. “I want kids but I am so afraid that I will be too old to take them to things and be involved. I am still looking for the right person.”
I told Ghomeshi he was not fat.
“Really,” Ghomeshi said, smiling for the first time.
I asked him about the Billy Bob interview and whether that was normal, for celebrities to demand that he stay away from topics.
“Kevin, it happens more than you think. It’s not like your job where I guess you get to ask any question you want.” Ghomeshi paused and I took it as a reference to my questions about his abusive behaviour.
Ghomeshi then told me that in his recent interview with Barbra Streisand in a New York hotel room, he had a similar difficulty to overcome. At the interview, which had not aired at that point, he was told to focus on her music, not her acting career. He said he snuck in questions about acting with a reference to the movie Yentl, because it featured “beautiful singing.”
When the interview aired, Ghomeshi introduced Streisand as a “singer who can jump octaves in a single bound.”
“When doing an interview,” Ghomeshi explained, “you need to be creative. You need to get an angle on someone.”
When he sat down to interview Streisand, Ghomeshi had told her that while in his 20s he had an opera singer who was coaching him, and who had a photo of Streisand in his music room. Ghomeshi told her that the coach complained that Ghomeshi was not the singer Streisand was, which Ghomeshi said he agreed with. He repeated the story in the actual interview.
Just as the main course was arriving at the Four Seasons, Ghomeshi began laughing. It was a maniacal laugh, edgy and out of place. His whole body was shaking and he hunched over his salad plate. I asked him what was wrong.
“This is too surreal being here with you. You are accusing me of things. I can’t be here.” Ghomeshi got up and left the room quickly. My sources have told me that he made some calls to advisers at that point. I don’t know what they told him. A decent dinner of halibut and vegetables arrived. Table mates wondered what had happened to the Q host. He returned when dessert was being served.
“Better?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said, checking his phone. He looked stronger, more alert.
I decided it was time to get into it. I reminded him of the accusations the women were making and the letters we at the Star had sent asking questions. Here is a line from one of the letters we sent:
“The women allege that you strike them with a closed fist or open hand; choke them with your hands around their neck to the point that they almost pass out; cover their nose and mouth so that they have difficulty breathing; and that you verbally abuse them before, during, and after sex acts. The women have told us that they did not consent to this behaviour,” the Star wrote in the letter.
I told Ghomeshi that these were serious allegations and he should address them. His lawyer had told us that everything Ghomeshi did was “consensual” but did not deal with the specifics we were asking about.
Ghomeshi looked away and spoke. On the stage, Brown and Douglas were chuckling after Douglas mentioned that his actor father, Kirk, had seen Michael in a movie and thought it was him.
Ghomeshi kept his voice low.
“I don’t understand why you are still asking questions when our lawyers have told you that I am innocent and there is no story.”
“The women who say you attacked them would differ,” I told him. “They have made some very strong allegations against you. Are you still carrying on like this with women?”
He dodged the question.
“Look, there’s no story. Why do you continue asking about this and talking to people. I know who you have talked to and some of them are my friends and they talk to me,” Ghomeshi said.
I was surprised that he did not understand how it works, given the nature of his job, which has over the years entailed asking tough questions.
“I am not a journalist,” he said. “You need to watch yourself.”
Ghomeshi had not touched his plate. He toyed with his cutlery, checking his phone frequently. “People in this city need to understand that I have a long memory. You need to understand that and be very, very careful.”
“With respect,” I said, “it may be the memories of some of these women that you need to be careful about.”
On the stage, Brown and Douglas were wrapping up. It had been an entertaining conversation, one I had unfortunately only had half an ear on.
Ghomeshi stood up to go. I stood up with him and explained to him that we would continue looking into allegations and that as part of our policy I would bring any new allegations to him so that he had a chance to comment.
“I think it is time for you to confront this and tell the truth,” I said.
“There’s nothing to say. You have the truth,” said Ghomeshi. He left the dining room.