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Jian Ghomeshi makes his way through a mob of media with his lawyer Marie Henein at a Toronto court in November, 2014. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Jian Ghomeshi makes his way through a mob of media with his lawyer Marie Henein at a Toronto court in November, 2014. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

SIMON HOUPT

Jury still out on media’s role in Ghomeshi case Add to ...

There were five key players in the Jian Ghomeshi scandal sitting in the Toronto courtroom Thursday morning as Justice William B. Horkins read his decision: The disgraced former CBC host, his trio of accusers, and the media who brought their stories to light in the first place. He found Mr. Ghomeshi not guilty, declared the three women to be dishonest – and the media? Well, if you’ll excuse the expression, the jury is still out.

In his written decision, Justice Horkins of the Ontario Court of Justice mentioned the media more than a dozen times. Though journalists like to believe we are merely chronicling history, the Ghomeshi trial illustrated that, sometimes, we unintentionally affect its outcome.

If it weren’t for the media, of course, the “Ghomeshi Scandal” – phraseology that even the judge couldn’t resist using in his decision – would never have come out. The story was broken by the Toronto Star, which published allegations that had been swirling for years, and it evolved in real time as dozens of other outlets joined the fray. No wonder: Here in Canada, we’d never seen anything like it. Mr. Ghomeshi was not just one of this country’s few celebrities, he was a journalist: one of us.

Still, media were like an uncaged beast, chasing the story without pause. Mr. Ghomeshi’s own former home went at it especially hard, like a body purging a poison. CBC aired high-profile interviews with complainants on The National, The Current and As It Happens, as well as a devastating documentary on the fifth estate.

“This story was a kind of digital catnip for news organizations,” Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former CBC Radio executive and NPR ombudsman who is now a journalism professor at the University of Toronto, told me on Friday. “It had the trifecta for audiences: celebrity, sexual violence and victimization.”

But if all of that media coverage finally gave the women a voice, it caused problems for the Crown’s actual case. Beginning with the first complainant, known as L.R. because her identity is protected by a publication ban, Justice Horkins referred in his decision to “an evolving set of facts,” which proved troublesome.

“Prior to speaking with police, L.R. gave three media interviews about her allegations against Mr. Ghomeshi,” he wrote. Speaking to the CBC’s Carol Off, L.R. said that, on their first date, she and Mr. Ghomeshi had been sitting in his car, flirting, when he suddenly “reached over and grabbed my hair very hard and pulled my head back.” She said similar things to the Toronto Star and The National.

Only later, toward the end of the statement she gave police the next month, did L.R. note that she and Mr. Ghomeshi had been kissing during the alleged assault. The judge observed: “The event had evolved from a ‘common’ assault into a sexual assault.”

“L.R.’s memory about the assault at the house also shifted and changed significantly,” he wrote. In two interviews, she’d said she was “pulled down to the floor.” In another, she said she was “thrown to the ground. Then she told police that the events were ‘blurry’ and did not know how she got to the ground. When trying to reconcile all of these inconsistencies she said that, to her, being ‘thrown’ and being ‘pulled’ to the ground are the same thing.”

The judge noted there were similar inconsistencies between the testimony of the complainant Lucy DeCoutere and previous statements she had made to media, in which she neglected to mention a number of episodes in which she and Mr. Ghomeshi had been kissing. (These appearances seemed to rankle Justice Horkins; in his decision, he twice mentioned Ms. DeCoutere’s “19 media interviews.”)

In interviewing the women, Mr. Dvorkin said, “the normal journalistic skepticism that we pride ourselves on – that seemed to be absent in the coverage of this story.”

Part of the challenge of covering the story was that, after his infamous Facebook post in which he admitted to a taste for “rough sex” (and a wrongful dismissal lawsuit filed against CBC and then quickly withdrawn), Mr. Ghomeshi went silent.

That left a vacuum for the women to fill. In an interview with Chatelaine published in February, 2015, Ms. DeCoutere said she wasn’t worried about what might happen in court. “In the end, the whole thing boils down to me having a conversation with Marie Henein about something that happened 12 years ago,” she told the magazine. “I cannot entertain that it’s more complicated than that. And the fact that people really build it up to be more is why more women are unable to share their experiences about violence.”

But it was in fact a lot more complicated, because Ms. Henein wanted to ask about many things that had transpired 12 years earlier. Might the trial have been different if the Chatelaine reporter, and all of the others who interviewed Ms. DeCoutere, had probed her in more detail?

Both Ms. DeCoutere and L.R. said during the trial that they hadn’t initially intended to press charges. They came forward to talk to the media when the story broke because they had been holding inside their awful experiences for so long. They were grateful to finally feel they could talk about them, and publicly challenge the man they said had abused them. All of which is wholly understandable. But in giving them that safe space, and the platform, the media may have also set them up for their eventual fall.

In the end, the women don’t seem unhappy with their treatment by the media they talked to. Still, maybe next time, reporters will feel compelled to read their interview subjects a journalistic version of the Miranda warning: After all, everything they say can and will be held against them in a court of law.

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Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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Lucy DeCoutere speaks to protesters after Ghomeshi acquittal (CP Video)

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