Busted: The toxic CBC environment that abetted Jian Ghomeshi

Anne Kingston takes a hard look at the CBC—a corporation that has bungled the Jian Ghomeshi scandal spectacularly

Darren Calabrese/CP

Darren Calabrese/CP

An earlier, abbreviated version of this story appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of the magazine and online.

On Wednesday, Nov. 26, as former CBC Radio star Jian Ghomeshi was being arraigned in a Toronto courtroom on four counts of sexual assault and one of resistance by choking, Chris Boyce, executive director of CBC Radio, a man Ghomeshi once called his professional “mentor,” was facing a different kind of scrutiny as he submitted to questions on-camera from Gillian Findlay, host of CBC’s The Fifth Estate. In the interview, part of a documentary chronicling Ghomeshi’s rise and spectacular fall, Findlay dropped a bombshell on Boyce that would soon shock viewers too: while CBC management claimed it investigated Ghomeshi, then the host of Q, with a “cross-section” of the show’s staff before firing him on Oct. 26, 16 of 17 Q staffers told The Fifth Estate they had never been approached. There appeared to be no investigation, Findlay concluded. An increasingly rattled Boyce demurred, saying there had been one—and that Todd Spencer, director of human resources, and Linda Groen, director of network talk radio, had participated.

That Friday, just hours before the program aired, Spencer convened a meeting with the unit, a gathering that took on the Kafka-by-way-of-Monty Python cast that has coloured post-Ghomeshi-scandal communication from CBC management. Spencer reiterated there had been an investigation, but it had been done so covertly that they might not have realized it was an investigation. So subtle was this investigation, in fact, that even the investigators were unaware of it: on Monday, a leaked email from Groen to Boyce surfaced, in which she denied she’d ever been asked to investigate complaints about Ghomeshi’s behaviour, “formally or otherwise.”

In the past month, public airings of internal CBC dysfunction have become a national spectacle—allegations from current and former staffers of Ghomeshi’s abusive behaviour that includes a charge of sexual harassment; leaked memos that banned (and then unbanned) former CBC-TV host Linden MacIntyre from the airwaves for daring to mention that Peter Mansbridge was “no shrinking violet” when discussing Ghomeshi and the “toxic” atmosphere at CBC. The gong show continued this week, as the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), the CBC employee union, sent a memo cautioning members from participating in a third-party investigation into Ghomeshi’s behaviour at the CBC conducted by lawyer Janice Rubin—a measure ostensibly intended to bring clarity, resolution and new proactive policy recommendations. The union threw a spanner into the process, airing concern that Rubin’s recordings of conversations with CBC staff may “be provided to CBC management” who could use them “to discipline the employee being interviewed.”

Management countered with a memo that called some of the CMG’s information “incorrect.” It said Rubin informed every person who has come forward “that these recordings are for her use only and they will not be provided to CBC/Radio-Canada.” The memo then went on to raise more questions, suggesting that people who come forward to talk could, in fact, face disciplinary action, as the CMG had claimed. According to the new memo: “In the case where a participant faces discipline as a result of information provided during the investigation, the participant would be allowed to review a transcript of the interview to make sure it accurately reflects the interview and their own statements.” Employees must surely be more confused than ever.

Inside the CBC, the grim mood is exacerbated by a sense that public trust is eroding at a delicate and crucial time. “Why should anyone think anyone competent is working in the CBC right now?” one frustrated employee asks. “We may as well run a CBC doomsday clock.” Beyond the CBC’s walls, the scandal, and the Crown corporation’s handling of it, has laid bare a complex ecosystem: a labyrinthine bureaucracy that seemed to permit all manner of wrongdoing; a destabilized workforce shaken by some $230 million in funding cuts over the past three years that made it vulnerable to the demands of a coddled star; a management that seems determined to stand by its faulty decisions—if it says anything at all. President Hubert Lacroix has been largely absent as the biggest scandal in years has engulfed his organization.

Related reading:

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Lucy DeCoutere and Reva Seth, rallying figures

On paper, the CBC appears a model of employer enlightenment and best practices. Posters in kitchens and bathrooms within the CBC provide help-line numbers to call if people feel stressed. All employees must complete an annual “Respect in the Workplace” 90-minute online course. A former executive enthuses about the level of employee support—from both the union and HR: “It seemed more proactive than other companies. Sexual harassment policies were clear. HR was very professional and complaints that came to my attention were handled thoroughly.”

Such entrenched protocols allowed Lacroix to boast at a parliamentary committee last year of the CBC’s robust system of training and policy, aimed at creating a safe work environment, and responding appropriately if incidents occur. In a rare statement, Lacroix told Radio-Canada that Ghomeshi shattered that: “This case raises concerns that our systems have not been enough, and that upsets us deeply.”

Kathryn Borel, from a 2009 interview on Q. (Youtube)

Kathryn Borel, from a 2009 interview on Q. (Youtube)

But what Ghomeshi’s case illustrates isn’t that the systems were inadequate, but that they were, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, pernicious because they allowed awful things to happen. The most glaring example is the efforts of former Q associate producer Kathryn Borel to report what she says were three years of sexual harassment by Ghomeshi at Q. Borel followed protocol, meeting in 2010 with union rep Timothy Neesam, who, she says, didn’t take notes. Her options were limited: start a union arbitration or file a formal grievance. Neither appealed: “confronting Ghomeshi directly seemed like a nightmare,” she wrote in a recent article in the Guardian in which she went public for the first time with her story and laid out the complex calculus of accusing a valued co-worker. She knew that if it came down to her or Ghomeshi, the CBC would choose Ghomeshi.

Borel apparently wasn’t alone in making that call. CMG president Carmel Symth reports the union hasn’t received one sexual harassment complaint in 10 years: “It isn’t because it doesn’t happen,” she says. What Borel did instead was discuss the harassment with Arif Noorani, Q’s executive producer. He told her it was up to her to adjust her behaviour; she chose instead to leave CBC. But Noorani has said he knew nothing about sexual harassment claims. “If I had, I would have immediately reported them,” he told Q staff in a memo this fall. After Borel’s allegations were made public in the media, the CMG sent out a memo saying no “union staff” had been contacted. It later clarified that Neesam was an “elected representative,” not a union “staff member” so technically Borel hadn’t spoken with “union staff”—a semantic loophole.

Whatever Noorani did or didn’t know, there’s ample anecdotal evidence of his disinclination to speak up about problems at Q. The fact he replaced an executive producer who was fired for not meeting Ghomeshi’s demands set the tone, says a producer: “You get along with Jian or Jian would get you fired.” The host was “unmanageable,” says another staffer: “If Arif tried to hold Jian to account, Jian would make Arif’s life miserable; he’d go up the ladder and cause trouble.” Though Noorani was responsible for the unit, he had no power over Ghomeshi. He also belonged to the CMG, along with Ghomeshi and Q staff, a situation staffers saw as ludicrous: “Why was I in the same union as Jian and my boss, Arif?” asked one. As a result, Noorani “managed up,” putting pressure on others in the unit—while screening problems from management: says a staffer: “Pleasing his superiors meant never saying ‘I can’t handle Jian.’ ”

Placing checks and balances on a star radio host would be difficult anywhere. Hosts dominate a program, says radio producer Ira Basen, a former CBC employee who still does projects with the broadcaster. “They create the culture. They’re alpha personalities in a high-pressure job, which means it can be volatile. Hosts explode at producers all the time when things don’t work. At the CBC every day and at every other radio and TV station there are people spoken to in ways that in other work places would trigger discipline.”

But management was made aware that Ghomeshi’s workplace behaviour exceeded reasonable bounds, even for a host. In 2012, six Q staffers went to Linda Groen with a detailed formal complaint—code-named “Red Sky”—that asked that measures be taken to correct an “unsustainable” workplace driven by a “culture of fear” in which they’d be punished if they didn’t do what Ghomeshi said. They demanded Noorani hold Ghomeshi “to account, rather than operating out of fear of ‘stirring the beast.’ ” Groen seemed aghast to learn of the situation, one staffer says; some changes were implemented and Ghomeshi was spoken to. Within months, the workplace had returned to abnormal.

Related reading:

Why the Jian Ghomeshi story has changed everything
Emma Teitel on our broken criminal justice system

Whether or not Boyce, Groen’s boss, was told about “Red Sky” is unknown (he did not respond to Maclean’s interview requests). Certainly he took a strong interest in CBC Radio’s marquee program, one he had helped shape. Boyce began on the production side and was promoted to management for his ability to create innovative programing that drew the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic. He was seen as a modernizer within the public broadcaster, the man who presided over the controversial revamp of Radio Two, which disbanded the CBC Radio Orchestra and saw Bach replaced by Broken Social Scene. Ghomeshi told the Winnipeg Free Press in 2008 that Boyce “mentored me and eased my segue into CBC Radio.” Q’s success was twinned with Boyce’s. And both were on the ascent: Boyce was named executive director for CBC Radio in 2011, a promotion that brought him to Toronto from Winnipeg. Ghomeshi seemed to be everywhere as the host of Q: on weekly Q-TV, which went to air in 2008; hosting the Junos and Gillers; representing the network at Sochi.

Boyce, who negotiated Ghomeshi’s annual contract, insisted in the Fifth Estate interview that Ghomeshi got no special treatment—but of course he did, as a star host. When travelling, says one Q staffer, “producers got a regular room, he got a suite.” Word within that Ghomeshi received a substantial clothing allowance—rumoured at more than $15,000 a year—met with mockery. “It seems insane considering all he wore on Q-TV were jeans and T-shirts and the occasional blazer and Eurotrash man-scarf,” one former producer notes. Whether certain diva demands were contractual or informal is unclear. For one, Ghomeshi was “the only one who could utter the rhyme: ‘This one’s for you, this is Q,’ ” says a staffer. Guest hosts were not allowed to do so.

Management’s decisions to co-brand Ghomeshi with CBC— became Q with Jian Ghomeshi after a few years—appeared logical: Ghomeshi was a talented showman with a gift for creating the intimacy that radio demands. And his desire to raise his profile dovetailed perfectly with the CBC’s. Grooming talent is CBC practice, says Basen. “There has always been a star system. Peter Gzowski was a star. Vicki Gabereau was a star.” Against a backdrop of brutal, unexpected funding cuts—even talk of CBC dismantling and privatization—creating star properties took on particular urgency.

But how much leeway does a star deserve? Ghomeshi’s perceived value to the CBC allowed him to use public airwaves to leverage his own brand, say former colleagues: “He’d give a public appearance, or give a speech, for which he’d be paid, and then give it a shout-out on the program. Nobody slapped him on the wrist.”

And behind the scenes, Ghomeshi’s power at the public broadcaster sometimes threatened programming integrity. When he became aware in April that allegations linking him to sexual violence had been posted on a Twitter feed called @bigearsteddy, believed to have been sparked by a discussion of “rape culture” on in March, he refused to cover stories involving sexual assault—a topic dominating news at the time. He didn’t want to talk about Ray Rice or GamerGate; he did eventually, though he shortened the GamerGate segment;he also tried—unsuccessfully—to edit out part of an interview with Julian Assange dealing with sexual assault allegations against the WikiLeaks founder. “It was too close to home,” says one Q staffer. Some staff were baffled: “He was a twitchy paranoid freak for months,” says one. “When I found out [about the sexual violence allegations, via an email] in June I thought, ‘Oh, now it makes sense.’ ”

Boyce also knew in June—via three employees in two meetings, one of which HR head Todd Spencer attended—that the Toronto Star was investigating allegations of sexual violence against Ghomeshi said to have extended to the CBC workplace. The information appeared to be taken seriously by management at the time, says one staffer who came forward. “They assured me we’re looking into everything and if they found anything workplace-related he wouldn’t be host.”

Indeed, Boyce had already known for over a month such allegations were swirling: Ghomeshi came to him in May alleging an angry ex-girlfriend wanted to embarrass him publicly by airing false claims. As Boyce revealed on The Fifth Estate, CBC management was there to help with messaging should any embarrassing information about Ghomeshi’s personal life be made public; Chuck Thompson, head of CBC public affairs, coordinated with Navigator, the damage-control firm hired by Ghomeshi. Boyce chose to believe Ghomeshi’s version of events, he said on The Fifth Estate: “I trusted when I shouldn’t have.”


Things changed at a meeting Boyce attended at the office of Dentons, Ghomeshi’s law firm, on Oct. 23 where CBC management was invited to view graphic evidence intended to exonerate the host. The fact that Boyce was accompanied by Thompson, and not a lawyer, suggests they’d already determined it was a PR issue. Ghomeshi’s own expectation that the CBC would side with him, even after seeing images showing physical harm inflicted on a woman, suggested how cossetted he felt. But the CBC had looked the other way in the face of other forms of bad behaviour for years.

And that was abetted by a multi-tiered hierarchy—a sort of Brazil-meets-Yes Minister mashup—where protocols and paperwork seemed to supply reliable excuses for inaction. Ghomeshi’s files were clean. Management even took the unusual step of doing a “word search” of their personnel files, says Chuck Thompson, to look for any complaint involving any form of harassment or abusive behaviour against Ghomeshi. No formal complaints existed, Thompson says, and so there was nothing to be done—even though some in management knew of serious problems at as early as 2012 with the “Red Sky” grievance.

Add to this slavish adherence to the protocols a plethora of apparatchiks—enough that everyone believes someone else was told, but not them. In the first round of damage control, Boyce’s boss, Heather Conway, head of English services, told Peter Mansbridge on The National that she had “not heard ever, ever, that Jian Ghomeshi punched women,” adding: “The people I know who work here absolutely would not ignore a suggestion that he was punching women and look away.” When asked by The Fifth Estate if he’d told Conway what he’d heard since May, Boyce said, “I can’t recall”—an answer that defied credulity, unless rumours of criminal activity by hosts at the CBC are so commonplace that the head of radio can’t be expected to keep straight which ones he acted on and which he didn’t.

Either way, two options remain: either Boyce heard about serious, potentially criminal, allegations and told no one and did nothing, or he did tell Conway and both did nothing and by a miracle of bureaucratic alchemy still have their jobs.

Why CBC decision-makers were unwilling or unable to confront the Jian Ghomeshi problem can be traced to a cascade of factors: a lack of stable federal funding that created a precarious workplace, the imposition of private-sector metrics upon an entity created as a public service—in part a result of the increasing influence of a federal government. Richard Stursberg, named executive vice-president of CBC/Radio Canada in 2004, went into his post with only “one idea,” he has said: “Audiences matter.” True enough, though this came to mean essentially that ratings mattered—a not entirely intuitive premise given that the medium was ad-free public radio, whose mandate had never been to deliver “eyeballs”—or “ears”—to advertisers.

The sensibility filtered down to CBC Radio. And Ghomeshi fit the new focus on relevant and popular; Stursberg was a fan. was viewed as hip, progressive, the gateway to a new younger demographic of CBC listeners, a hope reinforced by the fact that the show generated the most online traffic. The program was assigned flagship status in 2008, a year after going to air, given the coveted 10 a.m. morning spot previously held by Gzowski’s Morningside. The fact Q came to be broadcast on more than 160 Public Radio International stations with a weekly reach of 858,800 listeners (versus As It Happens’ 275,200) also delighted management. The 47-year-old Ghomeshi’s face and name were plastered on walls within the CBC and on its promotional materials, so much so that one wouldn’t know The Current, hosted by Anna Maria Tremonti, pulled in a bigger audience.

“You don’t get this at NPR,” says a CBC employee. “There’s a self-assurance about what they do. There’s no navel-gazing, or hand wringing, no ‘What are we?’ That’s a problem at the CBC—that we must be hip and cool, we must be diverse.” The idea that Ghomeshi was the one slotted into that role struck some as ridiculous:  “Only the CBC would take a guy from Moxy Fruvous [Ghomeshi’s ’90s a cappella group] and say, ‘This is the hip solution that we need,’ ” says a former Q staffer.

All this came against the backdrop of deep cuts to the public broadcaster’s funding, which in fact date back to the Chrétien era—rounds of layoffs that always managed to leave the executive suite untouched, says one 30-year CBC radio veteran. The arrival of Lacroix, appointed in 2007 by Stephen Harper, ushered in a new era; the lawyer brought no broadcasting experience but, as a mergers and acquisitions specialist, knew how to restructure corporations. Lacroix also donated to the Conservative party, a source of concern to the advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. Spokesperson Ian Morrison says Canada is unique among democracies in having the head of its public broadcaster appointed in a partisan process—and its core funding decisions made at government whim.

Shortly after the Conservatives won a majority in 2011, Ghomeshi interviewed James Moore, then heritage minister, and asked about the Conservatives’ election promise to “maintain or increase funding” to the CBC. Moore said the network had to find five per cent “efficiencies.” The 2012 budget introduced annual cuts of more than 10 per cent. This past summer, after another round of layoffs, Lacroix announced the CBC “needs to find a path to sustainability,” meaning greater reliance on parternships and external revenue streams (such as the arrangement with PRI), as he outlined a five-year strategy that would see anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 jobs cut—25 per cent by 2020.

It’s easy to see why, in this climate, employees might not file a complaint against a star host beloved by decision-makers—and why management might be tempted to ignore rumours that could jeopardize a high-profile, revenue-generating program. An embattled network’s dependency on Ghomeshi as an audience draw allowed his childish behaviour—chronic lateness and tantrums that destroyed staff morale—to continue unchecked. The radio host’s ambitions—which were, happily, in harmony with the broadcaster’s—put additional pressure on CBC resources. Several staff recall Ghomeshi boasting that his contract included a clause demanding the show “grow” every year—more appearances, more “on the Road”—amid widespread cuts: “Given diminishing resources, it made a toxic situation worse,” says a Q producer. A former CBC manager says Q’s budget did increase, “but mostly for staff to accommodate churning out the U.S. shows; it still remained smaller than other high profile radio programs on the network.” “Show growth” was its own category in the “Red Sky” grievance.

There was a flawed logic at work in the idea that a syndicated show was important enough in financial terms, or to CBC Radio’s image, to warrant all of this. was not merely being run like a commercial enterprise, in the pursuit of ratings and popularity, it was indulging a marquee name at the expense of its staff and its own journalistic principles.




In the Ghomeshi aftermath, a Potemkin village of investigations and action and new protocols has sprung up, complete with talking points—a “deep dive” of Ghomeshi’s personal file, which yielded nothing; the declaration by Boyce and Conway that “We’re not the police” when asked why management didn’t go to authorities when they saw evidence that Ghomeshi had hurt a woman. The CBC boasted about giving Q workers time off to recover—but this turned out to be something staff had to beg for.

Q staff’s contact with upper management was so minimal to be comical. On Nov. 2, days after Lacroix visited Toronto headquarters to announce proudly the network would be the official broadcaster of the 2018 Winter Games and 2020 Summer Games with partners Bell and Rogers Sportsnet, he sent Q staff an email that read like a note to a hospitalized friend: “Hello everyone,” it began. “Just wanted to tell you that I am thinking about you a lot. These are indeed sad times. Don’t hesitate to ask if you think that I can do something to help. Cheers.” Staff was gobsmacked, says one: “I don’t know what’s worse, ignoring us or sending an email saying ‘thinking of you.’ ”

By then, Q staff was used to receiving bizarre electronic missives. On Nov. 4, the day Rubin was named third-party investigator and a day after CBC announced Noorani would be taking a few days off, Q staff received an email from Noorani, about Noorani, but written in the third person. It was signed by Kim Orchard, a retired CBC manager who was responsible for the Q unit in 2010, the time of Borel’s complaint: “I promise you that I never ever received any notice of sexual harassment from either the union or producers. Arif says he didn’t either and I believe him utterly,” it read in part.

A half-hour later, staff received a second email from Noorani, this time written in the first person, and signed by Noorani, explaining the confusion: he had been at Orchard’s house earlier that afternoon, and had logged onto her computer to check email but neglected to sign out of his Gmail account. Later Orchard inadvertently had written a note using his personal email, Noorani said. Orchard confirms Noorani’s version: “Arif is right. I did use his email to write to the team.” The odd coincidence of Noorani going to visit his former boss, retired for two years, on the day the third-party investigator was announced did not go unnoticed by Q staff: “What was Arif even doing at Kim Orchard’s house?” asks one. “Strategizing?”

When management did visit the Q unit, that too felt strategic, rather than motivated by human concern for the trauma Ghomeshi’s co-workers had endured. On Dec. 2, the day former Q producer Kathryn Borel’s essay was published in the Guardian, Conway made her first appearance since Ghomeshi’s firing. The meeting, which went on for over an hour, was combative, with Conway on the defensive, one staffer reports. “It was very tense. Heather had a retort for any question or statement anyone had. There was no sense of hearing us or apologizing. It was: ‘You’re misrepresenting what I said; I challenge you on that.’ ”

The same day, CMG president Carmel Smyth issued a memo saying the union was going to make sexual harassment “a priority.” She praised Borel’s “courage in speaking out,” noting “we have reached out to her and . . . continue to offer her any assistance that we can provide.” This is news to Borel, who did get a call from a union rep asking if she wanted to fight for financial restitution (she doesn’t). But her half-dozen emails to Smyth since late October, first to object to the “obfuscating language” in a CMG memo and then to offer her a verbal account of the discussion she had with a union representative in 2010, went unanswered. The lack of response led Borel to share emails with the media out of frustration, she says: “Arif was baldly discrediting me in the press, and hiding behind union procedure, whatever that is.” She sent Smyth a thank-you for the memo she issued after the Guardian article. “We’ve still never spoken,” she says.

As for Rubin’s investigation, it has provided another handy excuse for management. On The Fifth Estate, Boyce deflected questions with “I’m going to leave this to Janice Rubin to look into.” Likewise, the day after his Fifth Estate debacle, Boyce cancelled an interview he’d previously arranged on As it Happens for the next week. The reason, As It Happens cohost Carol Off reported: CBC lawyers and the third-party investigator had advised against it. Among CBC staff, Rubin is seen as “a political poker chip—the ‘We’ll wait for Janice’ excuse.”

In the wake of the many questions raised about the Rubin investigation—including the assertion in an earlier version of this story that Rubin’s investigation didn’t extend to management, Thompson clarified to Maclean’s that Rubin’s mandate is to interview everyone she wishes at CBC, including management. Thompson also forwarded the terms of reference for Rubin’s investigation, which specify “employees who worked on the Q or Play programs during the period in which Jian Ghomeshi hosted these programs and who have complaints, concerns or experiences.” They make no mention of investigating management’s role.

What is also not clear is whether her recommendations will be made public. In his interview with Radio-Canada, Lacroix said they would, with an odd caveat: the recommendations “will be delivered to me, to Canadians and to the board of directors,” he said, adding: “If the recommendations that come change the way we do things, or if they validate the way we do things, they will be very, very public.”

Now Q is going through a cleansing ritual, with a search for new music, a new host, even a potential new name. All traces of Ghomeshi are being erased. Noorani has been shunted to program development, a move seen by Q staff as protecting the status quo: “If he goes down, they all go down.” (Noorani asked through management to speak to the Q team to clear the air—“to hug it out,” says one producer. They collectively refused.)

It’s difficult to imagine a corporation that’s bungled a scandal more—against a backdrop of best practices. Every rule of damage control has been broken: apologies, to the extent they’ve been offered have come late; there have been no signs of accountability; instead staff has been given access to therapists to talk it out. Even getting the story straight has been a problem. Conway said management knew Ghomeshi was the subject of allegations in April. Boyce said she “misspoke;” it was May.

On The Fifth Estate, Boyce pledged to change the “environment.” To do that, high-level resignations are needed, says a former Q staffer, though that comes with no guarantee of systemic change. Frustration has reached such a crescendo there’s talk of naming other high-profile hosts known within the CBC for bad behaviour, though nothing comparable to Ghomeshi. “I hear rumblings from people who want to speak out about harassment and misogyny,” says one employee.

Through it all runs a current of concern that exposure of mismanagement at the public broadcaster will serve political ends: “How much is the Harper government going to use this as a justification for more cuts?” asks one employee. Borel sees an opportunity “for this old-timey, polyester-wearing, dorky institution to come out as a progressive beacon for best practices,” she says. “They could survive this if they decide to deal with this honestly. But I don’t have a lot of faith.” A CBC Radio employee of two decades echoes the sentiment: “This once was a great place to work. But it is really hard for me to look at young people and say ‘Come on in, it’s going to be fine.’ ”

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, CBC union representative Timothy Neesam’s name was misspelled.


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