It’s Still a Man’s World

Featured image by Sookyum Lee

It’s a Thursday afternoon when my first-year journalism class is introduced to our guest speaker, Tim Neesam. When he enters the class, I’m surprised to see that he’s a middle-aged man, as all we’ve been told about his career is that he’s the current CBC photo editor—meaning that he’s either been doing that all his life, or we’re missing some parts of the story. Neesam is an engaging speaker, I can tell he knows what he’s talking about and by the end of the lecture, I begin to think that he might have actually had this job all his life after all.

A few Google searches would disprove these thoughts. Neesam was involved in an entirely different career only a year ago—a union representative for the Canadian Media Guild.

Articles from The Globe and Mail and CP24 led me to link after link exploring what Janice Rubin and Parisa Nikfarjam, the lawyers employed to perform an independent investigation of the CBC, described as “host culture.” Rubin and Nikfarjam describe this as “a belief that people who occupy the role of an on air host inevitably have big personalities, big egos and big demands.” In practice, this meant that “certain host behaviour was generally tolerated despite the feeling that their egos and behaviour were problematic as there is general fear to stand up to the talent.”

In the CBC investigation, Rubin and Nikfarjam analyzed the treatment of employees and the behaviour of Ghomeshi, managers, and union representatives in relation to Canadian labour codes and human rights policies. After interviewing 99 employees at the CBC, Rubin and Nikfarjam reached a couple of conclusions about the work environment there–namely, that Ghomeshi’s behaviour was often ignored or accepted as the norm of how hosts should behave, allowing him to ascend the ranks unchecked.

Further, Kathryn Borel, the only accuser at CBC or elsewhere, to receive any kind of acknowledgement from Ghomeshi said, “When I went to the CBC for help, what I received in return was a directive that yes, he could do this, and yes, it was my job to let him. The relentless message to me, from my celebrity boss and the national institution we worked for were that his whims were more important than my humanity or my dignity.”

Rubin and Nikfarjam also investigated the Canadian Media Guild, the union representing staff at Q. They concluded that, according to the Guild’s Member-to-Member Conflicts Policy obligating the union to support members making sexual harassment complaints and collect “whatever information necessary” to provide appropriate assistance to that person, the Canadian Media Guild “did not act in accordance with this policy”.

Neesam was Q’s union representative for the Canadian Media Guild at that time. Several women at the CBC went to him with complaints of sexual harassment by Ghomeshi. As quoted in a Globe and Mail article published at the time of the accusations about one woman’s complaint process, “According to e-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail, union representative Timothy Neesam recalls meeting the woman, who was then a producer for Q, “about Jian behaving inappropriately (verbally/in attitude) toward you.” The woman told The Globe that she recalls telling Mr. Neesam of the “hate fuck” comment, but no written notes were taken at the meeting, and she did not file a formal grievance out of concern Mr. Ghomeshi would find out if she did.”

I reached out to Neesam by email, telling him, “I am currently writing a piece about being heard in the journalism industry and the culture of protecting superiors, and would love to get your input on this idea to supplement my story.” Unfortunately, Neesam declined to comment.  

When the Ghomeshi story broke, I followed it closely, both because at the time, I was pretty sure journalism was the career path, and because the case concerned the journalism industry as a whole. As closely as I had followed it, however, I had neglected the root of it all: “host culture.” The protection of the talent for the sake of the show, is what had failed these women—and what could, ultimately, fail me in the future.

It’s no secret that ‘being heard’ in the workplace has been a long-time struggle for women. Aside from pay inequality, I grew up knowing that, as a woman, I’d have to work harder to earn respect in any workplace. Reading the CBC investigation and following Ghomeshi’s case, a new facet has been added to that idea of “earning respect”.

In my journalism program, we don’t talk a lot about the challenges different kinds of people may face as journalists—just about the challenges we’ll face as journalists in general. I think that’s common in most career fields. It’s easier to say that many journalists have trouble getting people to open during interviews than it is to say female journalists have a high probability of being sexually harassed on the job or that journalists of colour are underrepresented in newsrooms.

It’s terrifying to hear that Borel felt her boss’ “moody” behaviour was more important than her dignity and I can imagine that’s why many didn’t speak up at first. Kevin Donovan, one of the main investigative reporters behind the Ghomeshi case, agreed, saying “[People like Ghomeshi] get so powerful over the years that they take on an air of, ‘I’m Jian Ghomeshi … nobody is going to be successful in attacking me.’ So people who might raise these issues think, ‘I’m not going to go up against a guy like this.’ Of course [managers] should deal with allegations properly, the reason they don’t is because it’s almost like it’s too much effort for them because they know this could mean … eventually losing the person as your main talent, and so I think there’s a tendency, in places like the CBC, to give the powerful person the benefit of the doubt.”

Though Donovan told me that “host culture” is a part of human nature, I respectfully disagree. There is nothing natural about the kind of power Ghomeshi was handed, and we condone it by accepting it as “the norm” as the CBC managers often did.

I’d like to think that if something similar happened to me, I’d be able to face that powerful boss or confront that managers. I’m aware, however, that it’s not that easy. I see the way these women’s lives have changed since coming forward and I see how influential talent, status and likeability can be in convincing people to ignore what is right in front of them. I’m also aware that it shouldn’t be up to me or other women to prepare for their almost inevitable mistreatment.