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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

MARGARET WENTE

Ghomeshi-gate: a bad day for everyone Add to ...

I’ve always had a soft spot for Jian Ghomeshi. I was on his show for a while and enjoyed it. He’s a smart, hard-working guy, as well as ferociously charismatic. The CBC can be terribly ambivalent about its stars, and his was the brightest in the sky. I want to believe him. I want to be on his side.

When I heard Sunday that the CBC had fired Mr. Ghomeshi, I was floored. I thought that either the CBC must be uniquely stupid (not hard to believe), or else that Mr. Ghomeshi had done something uniquely bad. Every public figure has an unwritten morals clause in the contract. Had he violated his? I thought of the phenomenally popular Louisiana governor who once quipped, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”

Then came Mr. Ghomeshi’s passionate Facebook appeal. He had been fired, he explained, “because of the risk of my private life being made public as a result of a campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex-girlfriend and a freelance writer.” He freely admitted that he likes rough sex, but said his sex life is his own business, and insisted that everything was consensual. and that he has nothing to hide. “As friends and family of mine, you are owed the truth,” he wrote. He sounded plausible and open.

And he refused to go quietly. He told us he’s suing the CBC – a standard PR tactic for showing that you are the wronged party and have nothing to hide.

Mr. Ghomeshi’s missive drew a deluge of support. Obviously, a lot of Canadians agree that if a popular broadcaster likes kinky sex, so what? Thousands of fans told him to stand his ground. I was rooting for him, too. I too wanted to believe that in this new Victorian age of sexual prudery and the demonization of male desire, the lily-livered bureaucrats at the CBC were running scared.

But now, I’m not so sure. In retrospect, it’s evident that Mr. Ghomeshi was scrambling to get in front of the story. His advantage lasted half a day. On Monday morning, the Toronto Star published a devastating piece that related a quite different version of events. The Star alleged that three women who were interviewed extensively said their sexual encounters with Mr. Ghomeshi had involved a lot of nonconsensual violence – including hard punches and choking. If this was what he meant by harmless role-playing, they never got the script. The story described the women as star-struck fans who got much more than they had bargained for.

There are problems with the Star’s story. All the women are insisting that their identities remain confidential to the Star. All we have is their (and the Star’s) word for what happened. None have gone to the police. The Star says they’re afraid of going public because they believe they’d be stalked, trashed and trolled. (That’s probably true.) Yet the story has a certain plausibility. Mr. Ghomeshi mentions one woman, and now there are three. The Star must be mindful of libel laws, and it is likely safe to infer that its lawyers, who are not reckless and whose advice it usually takes, must think the story is defensible.

Sexual consent – what it is, how explicit it ought to be, what business it is for anyone else – fills the news these days. It is now an issue that (wrongly, in my view) every campus and every sports team feels it must adjudicate, in order to safeguard public morality. This depressing story raises a whole new set of questions. Can bruises ever be consensual? Can a sexual partner genuinely consent to hurt and humiliation – which, after all, is the whole idea behind certain forms of sexual pleasure? What would it take to show that such consent is valid? What’s the difference between tying someone up, and tying someone up too tight?

Mr. Ghomeshi says he and the CBC have been trying to resolve this mess for months. He claims the evidence (whatever it may be) is in his favour. Yet something seems to have happened last week that abruptly changed the CBC’s mind. Perhaps they learned about the Star story, checked it out and found it sufficiently troubling, but privacy policies prevent them from commenting on the case. Late last week, Mr. Ghomeshi abruptly took a “leave” to deal with “personal issues” (plausible, because his beloved father recently died). By Sunday, the leave had become a termination. Now, the court of public opinion will judge whether he is a champion of sexual freedom or a serial abuser.

Clearly, the CBC felt it had no choice but to throw him overboard. And he has no choice but to cut his ties and move on. What a shabby, crummy story. No one wins. Everybody loses. I’m sorry for them all, and for us.

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