How loud do the alarm bells have to ring before CBC management takes action against sexual harassment – even sexual abuse – under its very nose? How obvious do the warning signs have to be?
For the past eight days, as the Jian Ghomeshi scandal unfolded, the most senior levels of the public broadcaster have been asking us to believe they learned of the seriousness of his behaviour only on Thursday, Oct. 23. Only then, they say, did they become aware of “graphic evidence” that he had engaged in activities that caused “physical injury” to a woman.
On that day, Ghomeshi was still hosting his talk show, Q. The next day the corporation announced he was taking an “indefinite leave” for unspecified reasons; two days after that, it finally fired him.
Yet the alarms about Ghomeshi’s conduct towards women had been sounding for many, many months – even years.
In the “Dear everyone” Facebook posting in which he described his taste for “BDSM” activities in the bedroom, Ghomeshi said he was “open” with the CBC last spring about accusations that he had engaged in “non-consensual sex.” CBC, he wrote, “has been part of the team of friends and lawyers assembled to deal with this for months.”
In his lawsuit against the CBC, Ghomeshi goes further: he says two senior CBC executives, public relations chief Chuck Thompson and executive director of radio Chris Boyce, were kept aware of the allegations. He alleges CBC executives even helped to draft press releases to be used in his defence if the information became public.
The corporation, by this version, saw its role as circling the wagons around one of its one of its biggest stars. At the very least, it failed to press him hard about the allegations (none of which, it remains true, have been proven in court). The CBC now says Ghomeshi simply lied when asked directly about non-consensual sex. And top managers accepted his story.
Long before that, the warning signs were there. Rumours were rife in media circles about Ghomeshi’s behaviour around women. Yet CBC managers – who could not have been unaware of the gossip – did nothing.
They did nothing in 2007 when a young woman working at Q complained of verbal and physical harassment by the host. As Kevin Donovan and Jesse Brown reported in the Star, she says he told her in a story meeting that he wanted to “hate f---” her and rubbed her rear end. She complained to a union representative, who in turn spoke to a top Q producer. The result: no action and the woman soon left the CBC.
More warning signs? On Monday, the Star reported that the journalism school at the University of Western Ontario cautioned students about pursuing internships at Q because of concerns about “inappropriate” behaviour toward young women by Ghomeshi. That went back to 2012, when the host allegedly “preyed” on a recent grad who wanted to work on the show.
Yet in the face of all this, the CBC’s top leaders profess to be shocked, shocked that there was a big problem with their big star. If a journalism school out in London, Ont., could figure out that its female students needed protection from the host of Q, couldn’t his own bosses have tumbled to that?
The truth, sadly, seems to be that they chose to look away – or at least not to face the problems head on. The stakes were too high, the personalities too difficult, the problems plaguing the corporation too many.
The CBC is now bringing in an independent company to investigate exactly what went on in this sorry affair. That’s fine, but it’s already clear that CBC management is not going to emerge well.
At best, senior people at the corporation failed to enforce their own standards and ask the right questions in the face of persistent, serious evidence of inappropriate behaviour. At worst, they may have aligned themselves with a serial abuser – and against his alleged victims.
If it’s the latter, the CBC will have no choice but to clean house at the top – if only to rebuild trust in a badly shaken institution.