We don’t have a lot of sex scandals in Canada.
This is one of our most endearing features, right up there with universal health care, peacekeeping and a mysterious devotion to ice sports. The stereotypes are true: we are nice and polite. We are Canadian.
This is why CBC’s firing of star Jian Ghomeshi on Sunday and his Facebook rebuttal — a decidedly non-Q essay that juddered with so many confessions and sexual reveals, the Marquis De Sade would have been too stunned to click “Like” — hit us with the weight of a grand piano falling from heaven.
Then came the Toronto Star’s explosive investigation, led by ace sleuth Kevin Donovan, and suddenly Canada felt a bit like America. With eyes wide open, we entered unknown territory, plunged into the sinister muck of alleged deviance and violence.
South of the border, they have coping strategies. There are precedents for when a beloved broadcaster gets into trouble. In the future, if a famous sports host goes on a bender with booze and cocaine and then leaves sexually graphic voicemails, Americans can say, “This reminds me of Pat O’Brien.” If an influential talk show host starts an affair with his assistant, gets entangled in an extortion plot and is forced to apologize, citizens can nod: “Oh, right. Just like that Letterman thing.”
Lloyd Robertson’s biggest scandal was delivering the news with orange hair.
On Monday, as workers inside CBC headquarters climbed a ladder and scraped off a giant publicity photo of Ghomeshi, something else became clear: Now it was CBC’s turn to cope with the unknown.
Whatever did or did not happen, whatever the truth may be, the loss of Ghomeshi will be as corrosive in the short term as any budget cut. The problem wasn’t that Ghomeshi grew bigger than the CBC. It was that CBC never created more Ghomeshis.
His radio show, Q, had a devoted following that sliced across demographics. If you received an email from your bewildered grandma on Sunday, asking for the meaning of “BDSM” or “safe words,” this is a testament to his appeal. Just read the comments after Monday’s first post-Ghomeshi Q, in which guest host Brent Bambury delivered a limp opening essay about the show’s future.
“I know for the many of you who love and look forward to this show, this is a very hard day,” said Bambury, sounding as bewildered as your grandma. “I understand that because I am one of those people too. I love Q for the same reasons you do. But remember there are dozens of people who work hard to bring you Q.”
This is true. But here’s the thing: people don’t go to hockey games to watch the trainers. We don’t go to the theatre for the plush seats. As one listener wrote on Q’s website, echoing many others: “Q is Jian, whether CBC likes it or not. Jian was the public figure that represented Q, he made it his own, he identified with it, he was passionate about it and he was darned good in the role of broadcaster.”
Darned? Even our anonymous comments are nice and polite.
How CBC execs — none of whom seem inclined to talk these days — remake Q without Ghomeshi will be an interesting exercise. It may involve contortions. It may require sorcery, antacids and prayer. His impact as a public figure and broadcaster can’t simply be painted over, whitewashed into oblivion, especially since CBC really hasn’t explained what happened, what they knew and when they knew it.
Ghomeshi is a big reason Q is now syndicated in the U.S. and heard on more than 180 NPR/PRI stations. He resonated with arts aficionados. He was a gifted interviewer. None of this condones the shocking allegations. But he is innocent until proven guilty and, in the interim, his work is beyond judgment.
CBC will also have to cultivate new personalities that can transcend radio and television. Ghomeshi was a fixture in the arts community, working with the COC and National Ballet. He was a former member of Stratford Festival’s board of governors. He was also at every high-profile event in this city, including as host of the upcoming Giller Prize. Rick Mercer was named as replacement host on Monday.
Another unknown: Will Q still attract the same grade of celebrity guests — Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Salman Rushdie, Jon Stewart, Leonard Cohen — who flocked to the studio with interesting answers because Ghomeshi was asking the questions?
I recall chatting with Ghomeshi at the Luminato opening night party a couple of years ago. Suddenly, singer Rufus Wainwright appeared. The two hugged like old friends. Ghomeshi had a lot of old friends in high places.
Until all the facts are known, one suspects many have already picked sides. As Norm Macdonald tweeted to Ghomeshi on Sunday: “So sorry for your loss. You’re a fantastic broadcaster. Don’t let these mother----ers get you down. Get your ass to the States.”
On Monday, CBC wanted everyone to know the show must go on. How it goes on, though, is still a mystery to them.