Jian Ghomeshi: How he got away with it

Jian Ghomeshi’s behaviour was an open secret, going back to his university days. Not that anyone took action. In fact, the CBC made him a star.

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Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian radio personality, and host of the radio show "Q," in New York, June 18, 2012. Ghomeshi's show, which can now be heard in the U.S., blends arts, culture and entertainment through long interviews, live music interludes and a daily monologue by the host. (Ari Mintz/The New York Times) -- PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE - ONLINE OR IN PRINT - BEFORE JULY 22, 2012. -- CREDIT: Ari Mintz/The New York Times/Redux
Ari Mintz/The New York Times/Redux

 

Today Jian Ghomeshi was charged with four counts of sexual assault and a further count of “overcome resistance – choking.” In this Maclean’s cover story from earlier this month, Senior Writer Anne Kingston weighed in on the Ghomeshi scandal.  Her in-depth investigation reveals that this is not a case of the Jian we didn’t know, but rather the one hiding in plain sight. What follows is an excerpt from that piece.

 

At 9:05 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 23, Jian Ghomeshi leaned into the microphone for what would be his last Q with Jian Ghomeshi, though neither the CBC radio host nor his loyal audience knew it. Sitting in the red-and-black, cave-like Q studio that had seen performances by Arcade Fire and visits from Margaret Atwood, Ghomeshi began as he always did: with the trademark cheesy pick-up line addressed to a nation: “Well hi there,” he intoned in his velvet baritone. What followed was another Q signature: a short essay almost always penned by Q staff, but positioned as Ghomeshi’s thoughtful or impassioned or funny musings. A telling measure of Ghomeshi’s popularity—and the collective belief that the words are his own—is evident in the way Q’s tongue-in-cheek protest against Kraft Dinner removing the artificial dye that made its noodles neon orange prompted Kraft to create and Tweet a mocked-up KD package with Ghomeshi’s face and the message: “Well hi there Jian Ghomeshi, you smooth talking, early rising, exquisitely coiffed, national treasure.”

The essay he read on Oct. 23 was more sombre, spoken against the elegiac strains of Moby. Passionately and reassuringly, Ghomeshi addressed a country in shock from shootings on Parliament Hill the day before: “This is not what we do, who we are,” he said. He referenced Canada as CBC listeners want to believe it—an open, progressive, inclusive “land of peace and order.” He warned of political finger-pointing: “We believe too strongly in this country, this culture, this collective.” He addressed Ottawa: “A nation is grateful. A nation is thinking of you. I’m Jian Ghomeshi. This is Q.”

Just five days later, his status as a man who could speak for Canada was shattered. A cryptic CBC memo announced Ghomeshi had been let go. Ghomeshi was quick to fill in the blanks, framing his termination as a high-minded fight over sexual “human rights,” as he put it in a Facebook post hours later. The letter, addressed to “my friends and family,” would inflame his progressive audience, despite the many telltale red flags—the retrograde “jilted girlfriend” trope, summoning Fatal Attraction and Gone Girl, the “freelance writer” with an axe to grind, and the claim CBC had seen proof that all the sexual acts he was accused of were consensual, as if that were even possible. Ghomeshi, with the help of Navigator, a high-profile damage-control firm, invoked valued Canadian touchstones: He referenced the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, echoing Pierre Trudeau’s “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.” What he called his BDSM sexual practices were likened to scenes in Lynn Coady’s Giller prize-winning book. The note concluded by coming full circle to the Ottawa shootings: “I have always tried to be a good soldier and do a good job for my country.” Within hours, the post had more than 102,000 “likes” and sparked ardent cries of support for the fallen radio host.

 

Within days, though, many of his staunchest defenders—among them Elizabeth May, Amanda Palmer and Judy Rebick—were asking themselves how they could have swallowed his version hook, line and sinker. The warnings, beginning with the fact that we were only hearing one side of the story, were there for anyone who wanted to see. Within a week, nine women had come forward to accuse Ghomeshi of violence and sexual assault, two willing to be named. This week, Jim Hounslow, an employee at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, alleged Ghomeshi “grabbed my genitals and fondled them” when they were both students at York University in the 1990s. Toronto police launched an investigation, with three women, including actress Lucy DeCoutere, coming forward to lay complaints, and the nation had been introduced to “Big Ears Teddy,” Winnie the Pooh’s dark doppelgänger.

By then, Canada’s most overt public shaming was in full swing. Its target: Ghomeshi, the unofficial ambassador of Canada’s “creative class,” a ubiquitous presence at galas, opening nights, concerts, screenings, awards ceremonies, panels, debates. Anger percolated over the seeming disconnect between the allegations and Ghomeshi’s public persona as an enlightened, sensitive progressive who called Jack Layton his “mentor,” has interviewed political dissidents like Ai Weiwei and tweets out support for white-ribbon campaigns. Ghomeshi had even been touted as a perfect Toronto mayoral candidate in 2012 by his friend Richard Florida, the social economist who coined the term “creative class.” “I would like to see a younger person and someone who is not the usual suspect. Someone who looks and acts like Jian Ghomeshi,” Florida told Toronto Life.

As details of the allegations surfaced, a Jiandenfreude took grip—glee over the number of Facebook followers Ghomeshi was losing, Twitter shares of photographs of the scraping away of the 20-foot poster of the preternaturally youthful 47-year-old from CBC headquarters, and delight over news that yet another friend or associate had severed ties. Even his band mates from Moxy Früvous—the group broke up almost 15 years ago— felt compelled to issue a group statement: “We are sickened and saddened by this week’s news. We had no inkling that Jian engaged in this type of behaviour.”

As those linked to Ghomeshi run for cover, the allegations provide a case study of systemic failure to address sexual assault and abuse, and lauched a full-on movement on social media.

But the soul-searching within the insular Canadian arts and cultural establishment had another component. Though the specific allegations themselves, and their horrifying nature, came as a shock to many, there had been foreshadowing for years in the circles in which Ghomeshi moved, a tribal drum dating back to his days at York Univesity 25 years ago, warning women not to get too close. Yet concurrently Ghomeshi had carved out an ever-growing platform, aided by the CBC, his employer of 12 years. His public profile made him known, a familiar and seductive voice in the country’s ear.

In the circles that helped propel Ghomeshi and kept him aloft, if there was a collective shock, it wasn’t based on the Jian we didn’t know, the Mr. Hyde we never saw. It was based on the Jian many had known for decades—the Jian hiding in plain sight.

 

Photo, Peter Bregg.
Photo, Peter Bregg.

As the allegations unfurled with grisly details, a new chorus emerged with those close to Ghomeshi coming forth to say “we knew something was off” or at least “we should have known.” Articles appeared in Slate and the Guardian, along with tweets like this one by National Post cartoonist Steve Murray: “Every time a Jian profile is about to come out I’m like ‘FINALLY’ and then it’s a puff piece and I get so goddamned angry.” The behaviour they referenced was Ghomeshi’s reputation as a cringe-inducing pick-up artist with a fondness for much younger women. On Facebook, former Q producer Peter Mitton reported that he was initially thrilled at being hired in “the media big leagues,” but left due to a “gnawing sense that my labour was being misspent. It may have been in the service of creating entertaining radio, but that was increasingly secondary to the service of building up the host’s public persona,” he wrote, adding: “It’s deeply troubling to hear in detail how he allegedly leveraged that same public persona in the service of his own troubled private self.”

Now the private Ghomeshi—the version given a free pass by his employer but well known within arts and media circles as “kind of dark with women,” as a friend of one of his accusers put it to her—was suddenly public. It was a case of everybody knew—except for the hundreds of of thousands of listeners who started the day with his soothing voice, and who understandably trusted in the person presented to them by the CBC.

No one saw that disconnect more clearly than the dozen or so people who worked on Q. Though Ghomeshi was not the boss at the show, he was the “talent”—and the place operated as his fiefdom of sorts, a workplace with exacting standards and often cruel punishment for those who didn’t live up to them. “The culture was horrifying because of Jian,” says a former female producer. “He was a master of mind games,” says another former staffer. One day Ghomeshi would be jovial and generous, the next, cold and dismissive. His chronic lateness kept staff on edge; he kept people waiting for hours. Everyone bridled—at least privately—at his mood swings and his penchant for playing staff off against one another. The predominantly female staff found themselves reduced to tears by his tirades. The trauma and unhappiness within the unit was known within CBC, says a longtime CBC employee not associated with the show. And yet CBC management never intervened. A producer who has alleged that Ghomeshi fondled her and told her he wanted to “hate-f–k” her, reported she was told by the executive producer to try to work around it; Ghomeshi wasn’t going to change. This week two more women—one a former Q staffer, another a current CBC employee—alleged Ghomeshi was abusive and sexually aggressive. One was afraid to speak out. The other says she told a supervisor but nothing happened. Even when Ghomeshi reportedly went to the CBC this spring about a story in the works about his interest in “rough sex,” management simply took his word for it that it was consensual.

But if Q staff saw a pattern of manipulation, it’s easy to see why they didn’t challenge it. “Nothing in Jian’s world happened by accident until recently,” says a former staffer. Anyone who disagreed with Ghomeshi could be cut off, says one producer: “If he perceived intellectual disagreement of any kind, he would freeze you out for days or weeks, which would make it impossible to do your job.” People who dared confront him about his bad behaviour would be targeted. Ghomeshi could get angry and was often petulant, especially when he felt slighted. Story pitches would be subject to extra scrutiny, tiny faults would become a pretext for rewriting an entire script, and he would stop responding to emails and phone messages. Some staff came to believe that Ghomeshi was subtly telegraphing who was in his bad books on air by refusing to use their nicknames, as he usually did, when he read out the show credits at the end of the week.

Ghomeshi also had a reputation for being thin-skinned: “He could have an auditorium full of people applauding him, but if he goes out into the hall and somebody says, ‘You suck,’ it eats him alive,” says Roberto Veri, who worked as a Q producer in the show’s early days. “He’s a narcissist. Very self involved.” One former CBC employee who issued a critical tweet about an episode of Q, years after she’d left the corporation, reports that she received an angry phone call from the host.

Click here to read the full-length version of this piece at Maclean’s.