When allegations of sexual assault emerged against Jian Ghomeshi in the fall of 2014, the CBC was still reeling from deep budget cuts and job losses.
The subsequent Ghomeshi scandal — which would culminate in criminal charges and an external review blaming CBC management for condoning workplace harassment — then made way for allegations of conflict of interest around some of its other big stars, senior business correspondent Amanda Lang and Power and Politics host Evan Solomon.
It was a time of turmoil for the public broadcaster, faced with bad press at home and abroad. Recently, things had begun to settle down, with a new host at Ghomeshi’s former radio show Q and a Liberal government promising to reinvest in the CBC.
Now, the Ghomeshi scandal — undoubtedly one of the lowest points in the CBC’s history — is about to be revisited as his sexual assault trial begins in Toronto on Monday.
The imminent court proceedings have some wondering what effect it will have on a broadcaster finally in recovery mode.
“My big concern about the CBC… is that many people working in the institution were genuinely traumatized,” said Meredith Levine, lecturer in the graduate journalism and communications program at Western University and co-chair of the ethics committee of the Canadian Association of Journalism.
“There were those very deep cuts that went right to the core of its mission, and then Ghomeshi came. It was a one-two punch.
“I know people there are getting their sea legs back; there’s vibrancy. And then to have to go through all this again, I would genuinely be concerned about employees being re-traumatized when this all comes out.”
None of the complainants in Monday’s Ghomeshi’s criminal case are current or former CBC employees.
After an external review by lawyer Janice Rubin harshly criticized CBC management last spring for its handling of Ghomeshi’s workplace behaviour, the broadcaster’s president and CEO, Hubert Lacroix, offered a “sincere and unqualified apology” to employees and Canadians at large.
Journalism experts who spoke to the Toronto Star said they would have no concern about the CBC’s actual coverage of the trial, expected to be one of the most high-profile cases heading to court in Ontario this year.
“There was a very public breakup between the CBC and Mr. Ghomeshi, so I don’t really know if the public thinks that the CBC harbours any sort of reservoir of goodwill toward Mr. Ghomeshi that might affect how they cover the trial,” said Chris Waddell, associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.
A spokeswoman for the broadcaster said the CBC will cover the story as it would any other — with fairness, balance and in accordance with their journalistic standards and practices.
“They really have to get it right. This is an opportunity for them to show how it can be done in a really complex situation,” said Ryerson University journalism professor Paul Knox.
He said he believes the CBC will be under more pressure than other media in covering the story, given its former connection to the accused.
Knox suggested the CBC should develop a set of guidelines for its employees on covering the trial, reminding them of their obligations, as well as posting those guidelines to its website.
“It would be really wonderful for the organization to just move beyond what was a hellacious year on all levels,” said Levine. “Who knows? Maybe there’s been enough breathing space, and it will be fine. But on a human level, I do have compassion for the situation, to have to navigate all this in the public eye yet again.”