When Jesse Brown began reporting on allegations of sexual assault against Jian Ghomeshi, he was reluctant to push his sources into revealing their names. The Toronto Star, who he was partnered with to investigate the beloved CBC radio show host, was not.
The Canadaland podcaster went to the Toronto Star with four stories from four women about their experiences with Ghomeshi. He felt that was enough – he and Star reporter Kevin Donovan checked their facts, corroborated their information and they felt confident their stories were solid. Brown didn’t feel he needed their names on the record, but the Star was “bullish” in their insistence.
“Many journalists would say that I was not acting professionally. You’re supposed to get people on the record, you’re supposed to get them to use their names. I would not pressure these women to use their names,” he said. “The only one I pressured was my friend Kathryn Borel who ultimately did come out on the record.
“And I regret pressuring her.”
Brown visited a third and fourth-year journalism class last Thursday to talk about the stories he and his organization have broken over the past several months. When the story of sexual assault from the now-former Q host broke, the issue of sexual harassment was thrust onto the Canadian stage. Along with any conversation about sexual assault comes certain questions: why won’t these women report their experiences, and why won’t they use their names?
Brown said the women he spoke with said they didn’t want to end up like Carla Ciccone.
Ciccone wrote a personal account of an accidental date with an unnamed “presumed-gay Canadian C-list celebrity” that most people saw as Ghomeshi. After that story, she was attacked online with emails, tweets, and one Youtube video calling her the “scumbag of the internet” that garnered more than 400,000 views.
“This is what happens to women who make allegations about well-loved powerful men,” said Brown. “It’s no joke.”
When Ghomeshi learned about the investigation Brown and the Star were conducting, his legal counsel sent Brown emails threatening to sue for libel for even asking questions. When the Star saw that response, they dropped the story.
“When they threatened to sue us over investigating, Kevin Donovan said stop investigating. I was told to stop researching this story,” said Brown. “I was pretty hot about that.”
The story lay dormant for months as the summer of 2014 passed. Brown decided to bide his time and wait for a better time to drop the story. He couldn’t get other news organizations on board, like Vice. He thought he’d have to take it to an American organization if no one in Canada wanted the story.
As it so happens, the catalyst for running the story was born of luck.
Brown was sitting on a whole other story about Canadian state surveillance that he knew was going to be big. He said on his Canadaland podcast one week that he had a story that was going to seriously embarrass involved parties and that he expects to get attacked as a result.
“And Jian hears that. He thought I was talking about him.”
This drove Ghomeshi to go to the CBC with what he believed was evidence that what he was doing with his romantic partners was consensual. CBC is reported to have responded by having him escorted out of the building and put on “indeterminate leave”. Then, Ghomeshi posted a lengthy status update on Facebook saying a “freelance writer” and “jilted ex-girlfriend” were out to get him.
That post gave the Star “the justification they thought they needed to run the story,” said Brown.
More than 100,000 people liked that status and outcry against the CBC said the press has no place in our bedrooms. Ghomeshi said in the post his interest in BDSM was perhaps distateful to the public broadcaster, but consensual between parties nevertheless. He also said his father’s recent death had taken a deep personal toll. The public was initially sympathetic.
“Essentially, without even hearing the other side, they were saying we don’t think these women are telling the truth,” said Brown.
“I can’t find a case where four women, some of whom don’t even know each other, made almost identical accusations toward a guy. I don’t even know how you put a conspiracy like that together.”