Media stars should be held to a higher standard of professionalism and collegiality and management should have the guts to act

Linden MacIntyre Huffington Post  – The popularity of programs and personalities will be always be loudly hailed as evidence of institutional vitality, and never more than when that vitality is in question or illusory.

Celebrity, in times of crisis, becomes a crucial part of a façade that masks the deeper problems. Which brings me to a radio program called Q … and a celebrity named Jian Ghomeshi.

Featured image by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

It’s never been much of a secret that popularity and celebrity are potentially dangerous because, along with the illusions of success, they foster artificial hierarchies of power and influence. When egotism and narcissism become factors in success we will invariably find abuse.

But abuse is often difficult to deal with. Abuse is part of a continuum. At the extreme manifestations of abuse — say, assault or homicide — there’s no debate: sooner or later, there will be accountability.

But what about the rest of the abusive continuum? Abuse is never acceptable. But we are all programmed to put up with it, to a point, in the interests of avoiding worse — or in the interests of advancement, or for the sake of economic security. In a workplace rife with insecurity the impulse to tolerate abuse can compel a victim to silently allow it to advance along the continuum into a darker zone where it becomes perilous to mental and emotional well-being and physical security.

Jain Ghomeshi excuses (photo Jezebel.com)

Jain Ghomeshi excuses (photo Jezebel.com)

The CBC is not unique in the celebration of celebrity — of fostering celebrity with all the entitlement and power that it bestows — in order to enhance the prestige of the institution and the reflected fame and reputations of the people with the real power, the managers.

But when an institution is in trouble — with diminished job security in a workforce that is often young and vulnerable — celebrity, infected as it often is by egotism and narcissism, creates a workplace atmosphere that is toxic for the many people who feel they must put up with it.

And unfortunately, when the abuse continuum results in the kind of behaviour that normal people normally abhor, the normal people in charge of institutions, and who feel responsible for the appearance of institutional success and integrity, will far too often feel inclined to minimize and tolerate, condone — and in the worst-case scenario — cover up behaviour that is abusive.

The history of the Catholic Church offers the most tragic evidence of what can happen when the hierarchy in an institution abandon personal moral standards to protect the institution from the stain of scandal and, collaterally of course, protect their own entitlements and jobs.

The CBC is not the Catholic Church. The church hierarchy covered up a scandalous situation for many centuries until isolated cases of perversion and abuse became a plague that eventually threatened to consume the very institution that the systemic cover-up was intended to protect. At the CBC a few managers may have dithered about Jian Ghomeshi, even after they knew some of the gory details of his alleged abusiveness, for a few months. And then they canned him.

But the deeper problem isn’t what happened when it seemed to be obvious to management — especially after Jian laid it out for them — that the abusiveness on his program and in his personal life had crossed into that dark place where criminal prosecution might be warranted.

The deeper problem lies in the quiet acquiescence to what went on before that — for years — not just by managers, but by colleagues, friends, maybe even family. Jian was a celebrity — a source of pride for Persians, model of success and possible support for aspiring celebrities and stars — or people who just wanted a shot at a career.

But his popularity, his celebrity, was also evidence of institutional vitality that could be attributed to the quality of management at the corporation. So a celebrity can be obnoxious. What else is new? They are fragile people. Great gifts come embedded in complex and often difficult personas. Ego-driven temper tantrums can easily be attributed to professional standards that are admirably rigorous. Demands for personal service — get me coffee, park my car, do my laundry — can become acceptable viewed in the context of the heavy schedules imposed on the important life of a media celebrity.

Year after year, it was no secret at the CBC that Jian Ghomeshi was difficult; that his attitudes and many of his demands made the program, Q, an unpleasant, stressful place to work.

But he was a celebrity and his program was a success, two valuable and increasingly rare assets at the CBC. And so for years good people tolerated what was a dark side of the star persona. This is not unprecedented. As a matter of fact it is more common than not — I think celebrity in all but exceptional cases of personal integrity and a healthy measure of humility always has a dark side.

Jian Ghomeshi accepting awards for the CBC

Jian Ghomeshi accepting awards for the CBC

But the twilight begins at the point where the lucky star forgets (if he or she ever knew it) that nobody ever achieves celebrity without a lot of help and sacrifice by friends and colleagues. Which is where vigilance must kick in — and the responsibility for vigilance lies with management. Otherwise twilight becomes darkness where all kinds of bad things happen.

Whatever will be revealed as fact in the Ghomeshi scandal, there are important lessons to be learned about the nature of workplace abuse and the consequences of ignoring it, even at the low end of commonplace bad manners. Instead of tolerating bad behaviour by people who are recognized as “stars,” they should be held to a higher standard of professionalism and collegiality. And the standard has to be enforced by managers with the guts to act anytime the standards of collegiality and civility are violated — no matter how important the abusive person has become.

As in the case of the abusive priests — when scandalous abuse is known to have crossed over into criminal behaviour, the appropriate response is obvious: Prosecution.

The harder part is coming to terms with the individual and institutional blindness that let “normal” obnoxiousness proceed along the abuse continuum to a place where it became a peril to both individuals and the institution itself. This is where the serious and potentially restorative accountability must begin. And it must include a serious attempt to understand what the Ghomeshi scandal has revealed about the toxicity of celebrity, egotism, narcissism and abuse and their effect on good people working in an institution that’s in the middle of a breakdown.

It will now fall to managers not to simply attribute blame for what caused the Ghomeshi scandal — but to create a workplace environment in which there is zero tolerance for abuse of any kind — and that for victims of abuse, or even those who know about it second-hand, blowing the whistle on an abuser isn’t just a right, but a responsibility.