Jian Ghomeshi and Workplace Bullying

Who was really being bullied at the CBC?

New information has emerged suggesting the criminal charges against Jian Ghomeshi were engineered for profit. Former CBC employees, unhappy with being the new media precariat, found former love interests of Ghomeshi’s willing to speak against him. That these women existed isn’t surprising: as we now know, the former broadcaster is something of an oddball when it comes to romance and his bedroom preferences.

The long-time scuttlebutt was that Ghomeshi was gay. That misdirection likely arose out of his love of privacy, a privacy that protected him and his interest in BDSM. What should be enraging feminists but isn’t is that most benefactors of the scandal were men. Feminist rage is big business on the internet and these particular purveyors of it–Jesse Brown and his ex-CBC buddies–were well behind the battle lines. It was Ghomeshi’s female accusers who were out front, being skewered in public.

The motives for engineering the scandal were money and recognition. Some background on online journalism might be helpful here.

The shift from print to digital has changed journalism profoundly. Established media outlets have finally installed paywalls, but most hemorrhaged money before they did so, making their recoveries slow and unsteady. However, these outlets have re-emerged as old players in a new world. Thanks to bloggers and pseudo-news sites like Vice, Medium and the Huffington Post, news and information can still be found for free. These new sources have also brought about a heightened sense of competition, one that is occasionally bound less by a commitment to the truth and more to producing entertainment. It seems that anyone who tells a good story, with just the right combination of rage and style, wins.

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 4.27.22 PMWhat specifically were Brown and his friends hoping to gain? Lynching a public figure like Ghomeshi might give them what Ghomeshi himself had, a wide audience. That audience would allow them to improve their online profiles and to reap the benefits of a broad audience base. The internet’s market is simple: the higher one’s online profile, the more money one earns. This is especially important for Brown, a freelancer who started Canadaland, his crowd-funded venture into the nation’s media landscape. Brown’s friends, those who recruited Ghomeshi’s “victims,” helped him construct the scoop, hoping the reflected glory would improve their profiles too.

These were former CBC and CityTV employees, along with actors whose fortunes, like Decoutere’s, had taken a downturn. They became something of a cabal, a group of frustrated media workers whose collective meal-ticket became exposing and taking down a celebrity, one pampered by the CBC, an institution they loathed but needed as a foil. Second and third tier writers like Kathryn Borel, Reva Seth, Carla Ciccone and even the Guardian’s Ruth Spencer, joined the melee. The titles of their confessionals could have been plucked from the National Enquirer: Seth’s “Why I Can’t Remain Silent About What Jian Did to Me,” Ciccone’s “I Tried to Warn Women About Jian Ghomeshi and it Nearly Ruined my Life” and Spencer’s “I dated Jian Ghomeshi, Canada’s fallen radio star”. Borel’s somber confession in the Guardian belied her own penchant for ribald humour in the workplace, one that Brown himself, who witnessed her misbehaviour at the CBC first-hand, characterized as “incredibly inappropriate” and “foul-mouthed and sexual.

Their collective purpose fooled naÏve feminists, young women who missed the vindictive undertow and focused on gender politics instead. This sleight-of-hand was not fully captured in the mainstream media, but eventually showed itself in the reckless actions of Ghomeshi’s accusers. They left a trail of electronic messages that were as puerile as the articles they were quoted in and proved collusion. In the end, the real problem was that none of the information against Ghomeshi rose above the level of juicy gossip, a fact that became, for many of us, a sticking point in terms of the public proceedings. It was hard to accept the inconsistent musings of women who appeared to be cashing in on bad dates.

I wasn’t a fan of Ghomeshi’s, but apparently his large following, which extended south of the border, was well-earned. For a Canadian working within the confines of the CBC, that reach was remarkable and his status as a star deserved. His detractors at the CBC were legion, however, as even a cursory look at an unofficial CBC blog, the Tea Makers, makes clear. For those who were quick to condemn Ghomeshi, this level of pre-scandal animus–some of which was clearly racist–should give them some pause.

CBC workers making fun of Ghomeshi’s reverting to the original spelling of his name. So much for diversity at our nation’s broadcaster. Children with very ethnic names often anglicize them while in school to avoid bullying. Employees at the CBC have never heard of that?
CBC workers making fun of Ghomeshi’s reverting to the original spelling of his name. So much for diversity at our nation’s broadcaster. Children with very ethnic names often anglicize them while in school to avoid bullying. Employees at the CBC have never heard of that?

Moreover, I’m not sure we should be interested in what Ghomeshi, and other celebrities like him, do in private. My opinion of the scandal pivoted a few weeks ago when I became of aware that a journalist who’d contacted me, to convince me of Ghomeshi’s bullying at the CBC, turned out to be married to one of men who had helped Brown. As Brown did with his sources, she spoke to me without disclosing her relationship to the interested parties. (Brown kept his friendship with Borel, and his role in exposing Ghomeshi directly, very quiet during the initial stages of the scandal.) The focus of this journalist’s argument was on the morality of Ghomeshi’s behaviour. She said the video he showed the CBC brass, to prove his involvement in BDSM was consensual, showed a woman who was “black and blue.” I countered that if he showed the video, it must have proved consent. In that case, black and blue or not, what he and woman did together is none of our business.

The fact is that history is full of creative people who have pushed moral boundaries. I think of Georgia O’Keeffe, the prickly American painter who, counter to the mores of her time, started an affair with an older, married art dealer, a dealer who went on to make her famous. There are the Romantic poets and their unconventional partnerships and the Bloomsbury group with their emphasis on sexual fluidity. I also think of the tell-all books, written by lovers of artists like Picasso. Francois Gilot’s book about their tumultuous relationship made her career and Ariana Huffington’s 1988 biography–which one reviewer notably referred to as “dozy”–rested solely on the fact that Picasso liked to make women suffer. The revelations in these books are undoubtedly what sold them, but do the more salacious anecdotes in them matter? Through Gilot’s exposure to many modernist painters, her book has become a staple for those studying the period. That doesn’t alter the fact, however, that her decision to reveal Picasso’s private life amounted to exploitation.

Jesse Brown has admitted he massaged stories like DeCoutere's to make her and the other women "media ready."
Jesse Brown has admitted he massaged stories like DeCoutere’s to make her and the other women “media ready.”

And we should be wary of exploitation. Brown has asserted that his campaign against Ghomeshi could have just as easily been inflicted on another CBC host, George Stroumboulopoulus.* This either/or attitude seems to support what Brown’s critics, like Amy MacPherson and Diana Davison, have been claiming all along–that his only goal was to improve his own fortunes, not to defend Canadian journalism or his friends or take up the feminist cause. The same level of self-interest likely motivated Borel, Seth and Ciccone. These were not women with high media profiles and yet in the aftermath of the trial, Borel was referred to as a “brilliant humorist” and Seth a “best-selling author.” Ciccone, whose talent seems negligible, had an article about Ghomeshi published in Chatelaine.

It’s true that Ghomeshi was a broadcaster and not an artist, but he was a significant talent nonetheless. The former CBC employees pointing fingers claim that Ghomeshi was an abusive boss and a difficult man. That may be true, but judging by the treatment he got, in the years leading up to the scandal, the abuse was obviously mutual.

*I’ve been upbraided for getting this quote about Stroumboulopoulus wrong. However, the podcast where this comment was made disappeared (from Soundcloud) while I was researching this article. Luckily, a friend had downloaded a copy and sent it to me so that I could finish listening to all of it. Apparently, the podcast reappeared on Soundcloud a few days later, hence the link I’ve put here. I didn’t listen to the “reappeared” version, but  it’s disappearance points to the possibility that it was edited. 

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