Jian Ghomeshi and the precarious economics of the media industry

The Unmaking of Jian Ghomeshi

The CBC’s Fifth Estate, a documentary show that presents a weekly 60 Minutes style documentary, recently aired the corporation’s official public reckoning with the Jian Ghomeshi affair. (We know there’s perhaps some sort of report still to come from the CBC’s third party probe into the Ghomeshi events, but I for one am not holding my breath.) I won’t bore you with the narrative of what happened when and to whom—you can watch the documentary for that, or do a bit of digging in the Toronto press—but I have noticed that one particular dimension of this story hasn’t really been getting any attention: how the intersection of economics and fear became the core organizing principle behind many of these events.

The big themes that emerge from the Ghomeshi affair are, undoubtedly, the international-scale size of the fallen celebrity spectacle, and the welcome renewed public discussion about routine violence against women in our society. In Canada, we don’t really have celebrities who blow up as spectacularly as this, and none who sue their former employers for $55m in damages, so this series of events has—in a warped way—put us on the international celebrity stage. Ghomeshi, while ultimately not really an American-sized celebrity, had built enough of a profile through his interviews on Q that Americans did not have to make too much of a leap to understand who he is.

As for amplifying the public discourse about violence directed at women in all its myriad forms: the topic has certainly been making the rounds in the Toronto and national media. Women who have experienced violence are once again trying to explain to the public why they didn’t come forward in the first place, because we are unwilling to admit that the system ensures they aren’t heard if they do. Everyone from bored-sounding police and legal commentators on morning radio to elected officials are getting their two cents in, and none of it will change anything whatsoever. It never does.

But back to economics. The most striking thing about the Ghomeshi affair—and visible quite neatly in the “Unmaking” documentary, though never once consciously or deliberately—is how the precarious economics of the media industry conspire to create optimal conditions for these events to unfold in this exact way. Let me explain.

Several, though not all, of the women who allege that Ghomeshi hit or otherwise inflicted non-consensual violence on them originally met him through work, either as junior team members or as supplicant job seekers who were looking to find a way into the CBC and Q’s staff. It’s a well-known fact that it is very difficult to find work in the media industry, particularly on something a little more high-visibility like Q. Many young aspiring media types will presumably try almost anything to land entry-level work on a celebrity show. This is the same landscape that gave rise to unpaid internships, a practice that’s increasingly coming under fire as it becomes more widespread. In this context, job seekers (particularly very junior ones who are hoping that someone will extend a kindness to them) may decide to approach celebrity hosts or their producers on their own, outside regular HR channels.

One case described in the documentary narrates exactly this scenario: she approached Ghomeshi at a book signing looking for a work opportunity, and he abused this unequal power relationship and inflicted violence on her. She did not then go to the authorities for many reasons, but one of them was definitely economic/professional: if you make things uncomfortable for a famous person in your chosen line of work, you’ll have an even harder time finding work later.

The former Q staffer who described, in some detail, how Ghomeshi told her he wanted to ‘hate fuck’ her, was also in an extremely unequal economic position. Since she was actually a CBC employee, her case played out slightly differently. She did decide to speak up when the verbal abuse and general discomfort became unbearable to her (and good on her for doing so). The way the corporation reacted was entirely fear-driven: she was essentially asked to toe the line, to find ways of making peace with her situation, not to rock the boat. What’s also telling is that she went to senior production staff and apparently not to HR; the producers contained the problem by confining it to the Q team and made it go away by telling her there was no point in confronting Ghomeshi. Eventually, she left the show and the CBC. Those who are less senior are expendable, and the economic threat represented by confronting the celebrity presenter of a hit show is ultimately a much greater motivation than any impetus to do the right thing.

The figure of the celebrity presenter in a corporate context works in two ways. First, he is a figure of power, someone who demands respect in the microcosm of the show itself—and gets it because corporations transfer a disproportionate measure of autonomy to hit shows run by celebrities. Second, in a number of ways he actually ‘ranks’ above corporate executives because of his celebrity status. Ghomeshi had become the public face of the CBC (or at least one key public face), his image used liberally to market the corporation. In a sense, he was the perfect type to represent a contemporary CBC: a creative person with star appeal, from an immigrant background, a little cerebral but definitely a likeable presence on the radio and on camera, articulate and able to hold his own when interviewing the world’s most important entertainment industry figures on air. Where some CBC personalities never manage to put themselves across as anything other than a little stiff (Anna Maria Tremonti, for example, or Matt Galloway) and others are a little too ‘out there’ for sustained mainstream acceptance (Sook-Yin Lee), Ghomeshi represented an exciting combination of smarts, multi-culti appeal and a very Canadian kind of civility, ideally positioned to propel the CBC into a new era.

Let’s look at economic fear from management’s perspective for a minute. This might allow us to get a handle on why ‘nothing was done’ initially, why the CBC’s internal HR and management machinations seemed slow to respond and somehow ethically lacking as a result. The economic backdrop to all this is the continued erosion of funding for the public broadcaster. For years, the Harper government has deliberately starved the CBC because it ultimately does not believe there’s a need for a public broadcaster in Canada. And the gradual downsizing of the CBC didn’t just start in the Harper years; previous (neo)liberal governments also dialed back their public contribution. As a result, Canada’s public broadcaster has operated under constrained economic conditions for more than a decade, forced to successively lay off employees, cut back services and coverage, or seek out new forms of revenue, such as advertising and selling CBC merchandise online.

Under these conditions, management’s primary objective is to ensure that the CBC’s corporate goings-on don’t call attention to themselves because scandals provide fodder to those seeking to further de-fund the organization. Managing the CBC is, I imagine, a daily balancing act between creating and marketing programming that looks as attractive to consumers as what the commercially-oriented competition produces while also dealing with unions, funding cutbacks and business setbacks (such as losing the hockey broadcast rights to Rogers).

One can see how—despite protestations to the contrary, both in the print media and the Fifth Estate documentary—managing an internal scandal in a courageous and transparent way was not exactly a priority. Now add in the possibility of being confronted with allegations that one of your major stars, someone whose public image carries the weight of the corporation’s future aspirations, may be a violent sex offender. What would you do, especially when—as seems to have been the case here—the allegations were vague at first, mostly brought by outsiders (since Q’s own production team appears to have kept mum about them or even tried to ‘manage them away’)? Fear and wishful thinking, it seems, won out.

At no point should we think of the Fifth Estate documentary as a neutral presentation of facts. After all, this is the CBC’s own public coming to terms with the events, and as such it is a carefully crafted public relations exercise.1 I’m particularly interested in the representation of culpability and the assignment of guilt in the piece. A clear juxtaposition is being set up between the Q senior production team (Sean Foley and Brian Coulton) on the one hand, and corporate management (represented by Chris Boyce, the Executive Director of Radio) on the other. Events suggest the Q production team—which was closest to the rumours and knew something was ‘off’ about Ghomeshi for quite some time—did very little to make management aware of the problem, especially prior to when the story first broke in the media. Yet the documentary presents them as essentially free of any corporate or public culpability, always showing them together, socializing on a Broadcast Building balcony overlooking downtown Toronto, etc. The implication is that a creative team has nothing to fear from a scandal such as this. This is internally-facing damage control.

Chris Boyce, on the other hand, is questioned hard by the Fifth Estate journalist, repeatedly confronted with insinuations about his moral personhood, and ultimately pushed to say that no, there wasn’t really anything else he could have done based on rumours unsubstantiated by hard evidence. “I’m not the police,” he says. The documentary sets him up as the ‘fall guy,’ which is unfortunate for him and shameful for what it says about the CBC’s business culture, and business culture in general (but not at all surprising).

Economic stratification, together with the fear it engenders in individual actors, determined much of what happened here (fear about precarity, about not getting a job, not being able to speak up in one’s job, or losing one’s job). Vulnerable women at the bottom of the value chain were forced to act in certain ways to advance their economic interests. Actors throughout the CBC hierarchy kept quiet for as long as they could, and some possibly worked quite hard (whether consciously or not) to sweep what they saw and knew under the rug in order to protect their own economic interests, and the corporation’s. In this toxic climate, a predator must have found it easy to get away with targeting vulnerable women—and doing so quite publicly. It’s also worth wondering whether perhaps the organization’s inability to see what was happening and react to it actually encouraged new incidents.

*  *  *

This commentary is of course limited in its interpretive scope, based as it is on a single television documentary and an ambient scan of the print media. I am aware that I have deliberately focused on two women whose economic precarity in their relationship with Jian Ghomeshi and the CBC was easy to outline, and that I didn’t account for the many other women who’ve come forward who were neither CBC employees nor seeking work. It is likely possible to construct a cogent argument that would locate all women in this kind of power relationship with a male celebrity and a corporation such as the CBC, but that would be beyond the scope of this piece.

Through my studies in anthropology, I have become increasingly interested in how to contextualize or re-contextualize local utterances and behaviours in broader social and economic patterns to see how that enhances one’s understanding. This essay is an attempt at that.

If you want to express your opposition to the Harper government’s de-funding of the CBC, these people can use your help.

  1. I’m aware that the Fifth Estate production team would insist that it operated independently, and following the strictest standards of editorial independence. Yet that is precisely how our neoliberal world works: we believe we are exercising our free will, but we are really just playing a very carefully scripted part, a part so convincing that we must inhabit it completely. To think with Althusser for a moment, we have always already had this role. 

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