Jian Ghomeshi harassed me on the job. Why did our radio station look the other way?
By Kathryn Borel, Guardian – The now-disgraced CBC radio star fondled and abused me for years. He got away with it because management decided to protect their celebrity.
The key players who protected Ghomeshi for so long are now seemingly now using those skills to protect themselves.
Featured image Jian Ghomeshi leaves court in Toronto, Wednesday, Nov.26, 2014. Ghomeshi has been granted bail just hours after being charged with multiple counts of sexual assault. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)
The system that obsessively propped up Jian Ghomeshi needs to change. He is one disgusting man – but our public broadcaster, demoralized over long-running budget cuts and criticisms that it was out of touch with the public and its younger listeners, latched onto him as their savior and clearly didn’t want to let go.
The CBC allowed a two-tier workplace to emerge, in which Ghomeshi didn’t have to comply with either the law or workplace norms as long as he kept pulling in listeners, and workers like me only had job security so long as we accepted his abuses of authority. I was essentially forced to either leave the show or allow my boss to lay his hands on my body at his pleasure.
But since then, no manager or executive who was complicit in creating or maintaining a workplace in which Ghomeshi was allowed to operate with impunity has lost his job, let alone apologized.
“I want to hate fuck you” said Ghomeshi
I used to work as a radio producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. A few months into my job in 2007, I let out a big yawn at a staff meeting and my host told me “I want to hate fuck you, to wake you up.” I was 27 years old. I made sure never to yawn in front of him again.
After that, there were the uninvited back massages at my desk to which it was clear I couldn’t say no, during which my host’s hands would slide down just a little too close to the tops of my breasts.
A year into my time on the job, he grabbed my rear end and claimed he couldn’t control himself because of my skirt. Occasionally my host would stand in the doorway of his office when no one was around and slowly undo his shirt by two or three buttons while staring at me, grinning.
He once grabbed my waist from behind – in front of our colleague, at the office – and proceeded to repeatedly thrust his crotch into my backside. There was emotional abuse, too: gaslighting and psychological games that undermined my intelligence, security and sense of self. Sometimes that hit harder than the physical trespassing.
In 2010, I went to my union to try to find a way to end this pattern of sexual harassment by Jian Ghomeshi. I had no intention to sue, or to get him fired, or even to have him reprimanded. I just needed him to stop. The union representative and my executive producer at Q, the radio show for which we worked, did nothing.
In retrospect, I’m one of the lucky ones. Ghomeshi never tried to sexually assault or beat me in the three years I worked with him on Q. But last week, Toronto police charged him with four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking a woman. So far, anonymously and in the press, 15 women have made allegations against Ghomeshi of violent physical abuse.
A small part of me was shocked: not because I think he is innocent, but because when Ghomeshi was harassing me, it felt like the power dynamics of his fame – and those complicit in maintaining that fame – had inured my host to all consequences of his actions.
I went years without reporting the harassment because I feared for my job and my career: getting asked to be part of the original production team behind Q was the biggest break I’d ever had. It was my first permanent, full-time job. I had stability, many excellent colleagues and a dental plan. The show became a conspicuous success with a known celebrity at its helm. If I quit, where else was there to go?
And, like a lot of women, I worried that I had somehow brought Ghomeshi’s unrelenting advances upon myself. I went over my workdays when I got home: Had I been too fast and loose with jokes in the office? Was I intentionally provoking his come-ons by talking back to him?
By the time a friend convinced me to go to the union in early 2010, I was 25 pounds heavier, I was binge-drinking on the weekends, and I was missing days of work to stay home and lie in bed. Reporting what was going on to someone outside of the chain of command – someone who had perspective outside the hermetic environment of the show’s increasingly twisted culture – felt like my last hope.
Canadian Media Guild punt on Ghomeshi
My meeting with Timothy Neesam, an elected rep of the Canadian Media Guild, lasted about a 30 minutes.
He didn’t take notes while I detailed the extent of Ghomeshi’s sexual comments and inappropriate physical contact.
(In October 2014, he emailed me in response to my questions that he remembers us talking “about Jian behaving inappropriately (verbally/in attitude) toward you”. The next day he added, “I have no recollection of you telling me about physical touching” but that my complaint “was passed verbatim to the CBC radio manager, and also verbatim to the Q executive producer.”).
After my somewhat frantic monologue, Neesam gave me two options: start a union arbitration, or file a formal grievance. But confronting Ghomeshi directly seemed like a nightmare. His star was rising fast. He was inextricable to the brand of the show. I worked behind the scenes and could be replaced at a moment’s notice. My feeling was that if it came down to firing the “problem employee”, Ghomeshi certainly wasn’t going to be the one whom the radio station let go.
CBC Management in denial on Ghomeshi
By the time my union rep offered to informally talk to the executive producer of the show, Arif Noorani, I felt like I was trapped in a feedback loop: I had cried in my boss’s office already, on more than one occasion, because of Ghomeshi’s behaviour towards me.
A couple of days later, Noorani called me in for a meeting, and told me that Ghomeshi was the way he was, and that I had to figure out how to cope with that.
I took a leave of absence shortly thereafter and went to Los Angeles, where I decided to build a new career. I submitted my letter of resignation to Q, moved south and tried to put Ghomeshi in my rearview.
Then my friend Jesse Brown – who had been one of my main confidantes during my time at Q – called to ask if I’d tell my story publicly, as part of his investigation into Ghomeshi after two young women came forward and said they’d been assaulted by him.
But I wasn’t keen to be called a slut and a liar and a fabulist, and I was nervous that someone would identify me publicly and, in doing so, would damage the new career and life I’d worked so hard to build. I also didn’t think my experience being sexual harassed by Ghomeshi was remotely comparable to what the victims of his assaults had gone through. But Jesse persisted, and, eventually, I gave him permission to write about me anonymously.
A few days after the story was published, Noorani sent an internal memo to all the current Q staffers about me:
… In [the article], the producer claims she approached the executive producer with claims of sexual impropriety in the workplace. It is untrue. At no time, was I approached with such allegations from this producer or anyone else. If I had, I would have immediately reported them.
My old union issued a memo along similar lines, saying that no union staff members had heard of any complaints of sexual harassment.
More bafflegab from CMG and CBC
I emailed Bruce May, a staff representative at the CMG, and told him the memo was wrong, because I’d spoken to Neesam. May replied that technically the memo was correct, because Neesam was an “elected representative” and not a union “staff member”. He asked if that “clarified” things for me, and I said that it did: it clarified that the union was carefully parsing its words to leave casual readers with the impression that I was lying and they had done the right thing.
Chris Boyce, the executive director of radio at the CBC, has been equally coy – saying that management launched an investigation into Ghomeshi’s workplace conduct in the summer, while dodging the question of who, specifically, he talked to.
None of my former colleagues were contacted, nor was I.
Meanwhile, when my former boss, Noorani, was identified as the executive who told me that I had to learn to cope with Ghomeshi’s harassment, he was shuffled to another show, instead of being shown the door.
After how I’ve been discredited and stonewalled by both the union and CBC management in the wake of this, I shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of self-reflection and algebra of avoidance that’s being exhibited. Management fired Ghomeshi after he showed them a graphic videotape of his violent sexual activities. Imagine what kind of person would bring a sex tape to a management meeting. Imagine the kind of permissive work environment in which this man existed that would make bringing a sex tape to his bosses seem remotely appropriate.
While I’ve had good, transparent conversations in the last few weeks with CBC human resources and the third-party investigator looking into management’s actions, I am increasingly convinced that little will change.
What made the situation worse for me and, possibly, for his victims, wasn’t only Ghomeshi’s celebrity status, nor simply the unwillingness of people to believe that beloved icons might be terrible people: the maddening part is that his celebrity was a creation of the CBC – Canada’s folksy, sweater-wearing public broadcaster and one of the most family friendly brands in the nation’s history. Ghomeshi – and, by extension, his sleaze – was endorsed, promoted and held up as an example to all by a beloved institution.
The independent investigation into the CBC’s failure to protect its own employees, let alone its audience, from a man about whom they had plenty of warning – that surely won’t exonerate the broadcaster of wrongdoing. But it shouldn’t lay the blame at the feet of one host, or one executive producer.
The CBC’s critics are right that it’s out of touch with the public and young people if the CBC thinks it can hush this all up, transfer one person and claim that it has successfully rooted out the culture of celebrity impunity it helped foster. We need real accountability, and real introspection. If not, more monsters will be created, and more people will be hurt.
Kathryn Borel is a Canadian writer living in Los Angeles, where she writes for television.