The following is an excerpt from Toxic Stardom, a lecture Wednesday at Victoria College, University of Toronto.
A few months after I started working on a newspaper in 1964, I was assigned to cover Parliament in Ottawa. The parliamentary press gallery. At the time it was one of the plum assignments in the business. I was being sent up there as, essentially, a gofer to work with the correspondent who was one of the senior people on the paper. I remember the first day, sitting in the gallery above the floor of the House of Commons – I was so excited that I got a nosebleed and had to be taken to a hospital to get it stopped. And I recall that a constant topic of debate in Ottawa, even then, was the CBC: Its content was too controversial or elitist; its budget was an unnecessary drain on the public purse.
Later, in the seventies and eighties, Pierre Trudeau's hostility toward the CBC took the form of direct interference with the budget and the television schedule, with the upshot that the CBC's top news anchor at the time, Peter Kent, publicly spoke out about it and swiftly lost his job. Brian Mulroney, in the early nineties, famously appointed a western hog farmer as minister of culture with responsibility for the CBC.
In the mid-nineties, in a drastic exercise at deficit control, the Chrétien government cut the CBC's budget by 25 per cent. Everybody in the public sector took a hit, but it was revealing that as economic circumstances turned around, most public services, especially in culture, got their funding back – but not the CBC. Jean Chrétien didn't like the CBC, I'm told, because, like Pierre Trudeau, he saw it as a nest of English-speaking radicals and French-speaking separatists. And in the early days of his career, snobby CBC reporters seemed to think of him as kind of dim, compared with the other bright lights from Quebec – Marchand, Pelletier, Trudeau. It was payback time in 1995.
And so we arrive at 2006 and Stephen Harper, ideologically hostile to the public sector in general and, in particular, the CBC – backed up by a party that considers the CBC to be dominated by left-wingers and closet Liberals. Eight years later, oversight of the CBC is by a board of directors made up of people with partisan Conservative credentials and little or no understanding of the ethos or the mission of a public broadcaster like the CBC. So I don't think it overstates the contemporary situation much to say that the CBC – once one of Canada's most important and successful public institutions – is on the cusp of a disaster.
But, the politicians will respond, there's still nearly $1-billion flowing into the CBC from the public coffers every year. What's your problem? A billion dollars is a lot of money. But Canada is a lot of country and Canadians are deeply interested in the world. Covering the cultural, political and social life of Canada and the wider world competently and usefully costs a lot more than $1-billion a year. And the imperative that keeps senior CBC managers awake at night is how to sustain, with diminishing resources, the public's confidence that what they're getting for $1-billion is actually competent and relevant. There's a growing uncertainty about the value of the CBC, driven, I believe, by ideology and envy – private-sector broadcasters basically don't like publicly funded competition, even though most of them would be out of business in the absence of public policy and subsidies.
So what do people get that matters from the CBC?
I think there is a broad consensus that the French network, Radio-Canada, is vitally important to the whole country. It is a mainstay of francophone culture and information, and has deep and faithful backing from its audiences.
The English side presents a more ambiguous picture. There is great nostalgia for CBC radio – people respond viscerally to any perception of diminished programming and quality. But the cuts in radio, while less conspicuous than television, are equally damaging. Important programs rely to an unprecedented extent on people with little or no job security and minimal prospects for developing careers. Needless to say, things are worse in television where production is more expensive and where diminished quality is more conspicuous.
As is often the case in times of existential crisis, it becomes a challenge for people running countries or institutions to project the kind of leadership that fosters confidence and morale – no troubled institution can survive without those two qualities. And so we have the understandable impulse to make small achievements seem large, and to go overboard in praising anything that seems to be successful.
When news comes up with a story that's original, we tend to hype the originality regardless of the substance or significance of the story. A genuine success, like the CBC's incomparable coverage of sports and news, becomes a defining source of pride when we can afford to do it – which we can't any more, even though we bravely try.
The popularity of programs and personalities will be always be loudly hailed as evidence of institutional vitality, and never more than when that vitality is in question or illusory. Celebrity, in times of crisis, becomes a crucial part of a façade that masks the deeper problems. Which brings me to a radio program called Q, and a celebrity named Jian Ghomeshi.
It's never been much of a secret that popularity and celebrity are potentially dangerous because, along with the illusions of success, they foster artificial hierarchies of power and influence. When egotism and narcissism become factors in success, we will invariably find abuse. But abuse is often difficult to deal with. Abuse is part of a continuum. With extreme manifestations of abuse – say, assault or homicide – there's no debate: Sooner or later, there will be accountability.
But what about the rest of the abusive continuum? Abuse is never acceptable, but we are all programmed to put up with it, to a point, in the interests of avoiding worse – or in the interests of advancement, or for the sake of economic security. In a workplace rife with insecurity, the impulse to tolerate abuse can compel a victim to silently allow it to advance along the continuum into a darker zone where it becomes perilous to mental and emotional well-being and physical security.
The CBC is not unique in the celebration of celebrity, of fostering celebrity with all the entitlement and power that it bestows in order to enhance the prestige of the institution and the reputations of the people with the real power, the managers. But when an institution is in trouble, with diminished job security in a workforce that is often young and vulnerable, celebrity – infected as it often is by egotism and narcissism – creates a workplace atmosphere that is toxic for the many people who feel they must put up with it.
And unfortunately, when the abuse continuum results in the kind of behaviour that normal people normally abhor, the normal people in charge of institutions – who feel responsible for the appearance of institutional success and integrity – will far too often feel inclined to minimize and tolerate, condone and, in the worst-case scenario, cover up behaviour that is abusive.
The history of the Catholic Church offers the most tragic evidence of what can happen when the hierarchy in an institution abandons personal moral standards to protect the institution from the stain of scandal and, collaterally of course, protect its own entitlements and jobs.
The CBC is not the Catholic Church. The church hierarchy covered up a scandalous situation for many centuries until isolated cases of perversion and abuse became a plague that eventually threatened to consume the very institution that the systemic cover-up was intended to protect. At the CBC, a few managers may have dithered about Jian Ghomeshi, even after they knew some of the gory details of his alleged abusiveness for a few months. And then they canned him.
But the deeper problem isn't what happened when it seemed to be obvious to management, especially after Jian laid it out for them, that the abusiveness on his program and in his personal life had crossed into that dark place where criminal prosecution might be warranted.
The deeper problem lies in the quiet acquiescence to what some say went on before that – for years – not just by managers, but by colleagues, friends, maybe even family. Jian was a celebrity – a source of pride for Persians, model of success and possible support for aspiring celebrities and stars – or people who just wanted a shot at a career. But his popularity – his celebrity – was also evidence of institutional vitality that could be attributed to the quality of management at the corporation. So a celebrity can be obnoxious. What else is new? They are fragile people. Great gifts come embedded in complex and often difficult personas. Ego-driven temper tantrums can easily be attributed to professional standards that are admirably rigorous. Demands for personal service – get me coffee, park my car, do my laundry – can become acceptable when viewed in the context of the heavy schedules imposed on the important life of a media celebrity.
Year after year, it was no secret at the CBC that Jian Ghomeshi was difficult, that his attitudes and many of his demands made the program, Q, an unpleasant, stressful place to work. But he was a celebrity and his program was a success, two valuable and increasingly rare assets at the CBC. And so for years good people tolerated what was a dark side of the star persona.
This is not unprecedented. As a matter of fact it is more common than not – I think celebrity, in all but exceptional cases of personal integrity and a healthy measure of humility, always has a dark side. But the twilight begins at the point where the lucky star forgets (if he or she ever knew it) that nobody ever achieves celebrity without a lot of help and sacrifice by friends and colleagues. Which is where vigilance must kick in, and the responsibility for vigilance lies with management. Otherwise, twilight becomes darkness, where all kinds of bad things happen.
Whatever will be revealed as fact in the Ghomeshi scandal, there are important lessons to be learned about the nature of workplace abuse and the consequences of ignoring it, even at the low end of commonplace bad manners. Instead of tolerating bad behaviour by people who are recognized as "stars," we should hold them to a higher standard of professionalism and collegiality. And the standard has to be enforced by managers with the guts to act any time the standards of collegiality and civility are violated – no matter how important the abusive person has become.
As in the case of the abusive priests, when scandalous abuse is known to have crossed over into criminal behaviour, the appropriate response is obvious: prosecution.
The harder part is coming to terms with the individual and institutional blindness that let "normal" obnoxiousness proceed along the abuse continuum to a place where it became a peril to both individuals and the institution itself. This is where the serious and potentially restorative accountability must begin. And it must include a serious attempt to understand what the Ghomeshi scandal has revealed about the toxicity of celebrity, egotism, narcissism and abuse, and their effect on good people working in an institution that's in the middle of a breakdown.
It will now fall to managers not to simply attribute blame for what caused the Ghomeshi scandal, but to create a workplace environment in which there is zero tolerance for abuse of any kind. And for victims of abuse, or even those who know about it second hand, blowing the whistle on an abuser isn't just a right, but a responsibility.