Sex, Lies and Suicide: The Scandal at the Toronto Star

Above: Jane Davenport of the Toronto Star. Did she lie to protect her lover, Jon Filson, when another Star journalist, Stephanie Cesca, made a complaint about him? Why was Cesca fired? 

Note: This article is about Raveena Aulakh, the Toronto Star journalist who took her life last month. To read about Rosie DiManno’s assault charges, click here.

Raveen Aulakh
Raveena Aulakh

With the events unfolding at the Toronto Star, it’s hard to resist a bit of Schadenfreude. After all, in recent years—those overseen by managing editor Jane Davenport–members of its vaunted newsroom pursued Rob Ford and Jian Ghomeshi with a zeal bordering on the depraved.

For all the Star’s thou-shall-notting, both men were suffering from mental illnesses: Ford was an active addict and Ghomeshi a celebrity suffering acute anxiety, likely because he was thoroughly hated by his own institution, the CBC. As per the Star’s do-gooder agenda, the trespasses made against these two men were minimized while those they committed maximized. In short, the Star was making TMZ look good.

Enter Jane Davenport, Jon Filson and Raveena Aulakh, managing editor and two career journalists, respectively. Aulakh committed suicide after discovering that her married ex-boyfriend, Filson, had begun an affair with her boss, Davenport. When it comes to triangles and trespasses, these three ended up in O-la-la territory.

By all accounts Aulakh was a gifted journalist. Already a success in her native India, she came to Canada in 2007 to do graduate work at the University of Western Ontario. From London, she went to Toronto and began a second phase of her career, working the environment beat. Apparently, she was a much beloved colleague as the Star’s public editor, Kathy English, wrote: “I have worked in newsrooms for 40 years and have never seen anything like the level of grief and anger exploding here.” It’s not surprising; suicide is especially unsettling because of all the unknowns. It forces us to ask ourselves: Why didn’t I see this? What else am I missing?

Stephanie Cesca complained to Davenport, her boss and Filson's lover, that Filson was abusive. She was fired shortly afterwards. Davenport's handling of Cesca's complaints might shed more light on this tragedy.
Stephanie Cesca complained to Davenport, her boss and Filson’s lover, that Filson was abusive. She was fired shortly afterwards. Davenport’s handling of Cesca’s complaints might shed more light on this tragedy.

I came from an ethnic community that saw more than its fair share of suicides. (Slovenia, the country of my father’s birth, has an abnormally high suicide rate, prompting researchers there to look into genetic causes.) While in high school, several mothers in my enclave committed suicide and, by the time I’d hit my mid-twenties, about a half-dozen acquaintances, of mixed ethnic backgrounds, had done the same.

I’ve obviously cultivated some theories about suicide over the years.

I’ll start by saying that Aulakh’s wish to protect her privacy should be honoured. If I felt the Toronto Star’s investigative reporter, Kevin Donovan, was wrong to pay (or otherwise entice) informants in Ford’s rehab, then I must concede that Aulakh, as another sufferer of mental illness, deserves privacy too. For example, it’s unlikely that the end of her relationship with Filson was the sole cause of her decision, so it must be that other issues were preying on her mind. We don’t have a right to know what those issues were; that her sadness became unbearable is enough.

That said, it’s clear she was up against a dyad she felt betrayed by and that dyad existed in her working life. That leads us to a very sticky conversation about on-the-job fraternization.

Plenty of people meet their spouses at work, so enforcing a rule against it, in most places, isn’t practical. However, there are times when fraternization becomes toxic and it’s that toxicity that may be worth defining.

Rob Ford was an addict suffering what is considered a mental illness.
Rob Ford was suffering with an addiction, a mental illness.

Apparently Aulakh was one of two reporters who complained about Jon Filson. Stephanie Cesca, the Star’s national editor, felt Filson was a bully and unwittingly took her complaints to Davenport. She was fired shortly afterwards, but lawyered her way to a financial settlement (that likely includes a non-disclosure agreement). Weeks later, when Aulakh found graphic messages from Davenport to Filson on Filson’s phone, she took her complaint to foreign editor Lynn McAuley. McAuley warned her against speaking out, saying it could lose Davenport her job.

Of the two complaints, only Cesca’s is legitimate. Although Aulakh was clearly upset by what she found, it’s fair to assume she had no business going through Filson’s phone and the messages were private. No human resources department could have done much to help her, other than to suggest counselling. Her suicide is another matter, which I’ll return to shortly.

It’s the collusion and out-numbering aspect of fraternization that becomes a problem in the workplace. So revealing Stephanie Cesca’s complaints about Filson, and Davenport’s treatment of them, might be more interesting than revealing Aulakh’s suicide note. Moreover, if Davenport used her position to protect Filson–and it seems she may have–then she should be following him out the door. It’s not like Davenport hasn’t had previous experiences with selective truth-telling. When her husband, Jack Romanelli, was managing editor of the Montreal Gazette, he apparently tried to broker a (pre-marriage) promotion for her without disclosing their romance.

However, let me stop for a moment to clarify my position on workplace privacy: I find it unpleasant to tear into people’s personal lives, but there are times when self-preservation demands it.

Journalist Robyn Doolittle: to read my critique of Crazy Town, click here.
Journalist Robyn Doolittle: to read my critique of Crazy Town, click here.

Here’s why I think so: when my 77 year-old mother spent a month in an Ontario hospital, the surgeon whose care she was under seemed reluctant to help her. I suspect it was because he thought she would be better off not surviving her illness. That’s a choice some families might have made, but my mother wanted to survive and it was my job to advocate for her.

The day that I came up against a toxic dyad started like this: I came to the hospital in the morning and found my mother unresponsive. When I raised the alarm, I was told the culprit was her pain medication. I accepted the nurses’ explanation at first, but when she didn’t improve, I started making a nuisance of myself. Hours went by and my mother’s nurses looked worried, but did nothing. When I went home that night, I was probably as anguished and vexed as I’ve ever been in my life.

The next morning, I was told she’d suffered a severe stroke–her MRI showed a sizeable black spot in her brain–and that the window of opportunity, when the stroke could have been mitigated, had passed. When I asked why the nurses hadn’t done anything the previous day, I was stonewalled. It was only months later that the head of a healthcare workers’ union gave me an explanation. My mother’s surgeon was having an affair with a charge nurse who had the power to change nurses’ shifts, cancel holidays and generally make their lives miserable. The nurses on duty that day didn’t act because they knew if they went against the surgeon’s wishes they would be punished by his mistress.

So life and death hung in the balance for my family as well. However, the difference between our experience and Aulakh’s is this: Aulakh wasn’t a victim. She made the decision to become involved with a married man as did Davenport, who was married herself. Playing musical beds when partners are married can be thrilling, but it’s not a game for sensitive souls. I suspect at least some of the grief and anger in the Star’s newsroom is in recognition of Aulakh’s underlying, and perhaps surprising, fragility.

Jian Ghomeshi routinely gave talks about his anxiety. He did this to help young people.
Jian Ghomeshi openly talked about his anxiety. He did this to help others.

However, it’s also surprising that some otherwise intelligent people aren’t making other connections here. It’s no secret that the thrill of adultery isn’t so different from the thrill of gambling, extreme sports or online porn. Our brain’s pleasure centres are stimulated by risk–especially sexual risk–and so instead of throwing die, taking drugs or drinking alcohol (like, let’s say, Rob Ford), participants dose themselves with their body’s own chemicals.

Or, instead of playing bondage games (like, let’s say, Jian Ghomeshi), the secret knowledge that is the pleasure of betrayal can rev up our brain’s neurotransmitters, making it especially seductive. What’s important here is that the players in this drama aren’t so different from the crackheads and sex fiends they root out and demonize on a regular basis.

I’m not surprised–haloes can get heavy sometimes–but let’s hope this tragedy does at least one thing: gets the Star’s journalists to stop the cheap paparazzi-ism and heavy-handed moralizing.

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