Kevin Donovan, Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation. Goose Lane Editions, 2016. 232 pages, $19.95.
By Dan Rowe, Books Editor
Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation by Toronto Star reporter Kevin Donovan serves, first and foremost, as a reminder, if one is still needed, of accusations of monstrously harassing behavior in Ghomeshi’s personal and professional life. In February 2016, a Toronto courtroom heard multiple criminal charges against the former CBC radio host, of which he was acquitted. In May 2016, he apologized in court to Kathryn Borel, a writer and former CBC employee who said Ghomeshi sexually assaulted her while the two worked together on Q.
Despite its title, the book adds little to our understanding of Ghomeshi’s ‘secret life’ or for that matter the system of management at the CBC that evidently left workplace harassment complaints to fester unaddressed. But combined with an internal CBC inquiry report on the CBC’s mishandling of complaints, written by lawyer Janice Rubin, and a particularly affecting episode of the Canadaland podcast from earlier this year featuring an honest and at times difficult conversation between Jesse Brown and Borel, this book and those texts help to create a clearer picture of this episode and its role in raising the public’s awareness of violence against women.
As someone who read Brown and Donovan’s initial reporting of the Ghomeshi allegations avidly, there doesn’t appear to be much new information in Secret Life about Ghomeshi’s actions. It does offer a behind-the-scenes look at how the Star managed this story in a way that is reminiscent of Robyn Doolittle’s book on the Rob Ford crack video investigation. Donovan details how he and Brown worked together and how they worked with editors Michael Cooke, Jane Davenport and Irene Gentle and newsroom lawyer Bert Bruser. The particulars will be illuminating to those fascinated by journalistic practices and routines.
Undoubtedly, though, it will be Donovan’s portrayal of Canadaland’s Brown that will attract the most attention in media circles. The depiction is not always flattering and is frequently, I think, ungenerous. In one passage, for example, Donovan describes Brown as “a tall and imposing man who always seemed to be breaking a sweat.” Later, in recounting a conversation with Bruser, he calls Brown “a sentence finisher,” which is a bad thing in investigative reporting according to Donovan.
Another passage has the effect, whether intentional or not, of casting aspersions on Brown’s motivations by noting that the interest in the story led to Brown gaining thousands of Twitter followers and coincided the launch of the Patreon campaign to fund Canadaland—as though commercial imperatives don’t play a part in all of the decisions made by any news organization.
Tensions between Brown and the Star types reach a boiling point when Brown’s byline is inadvertently and briefly left off a story. The amazing scene that follows somehow seems like a metaphor for all of the tensions in Canadian journalism. “Brown passed us all in a dead run and strode inside Michael Cooke’s office,” Donovan writes. “He stormed around Cooke’s desk, and there was an altercation of some sort. Cooke said he stood up and there was some sort of ‘chest bump,’ which he immediately regretted.”
Donovan’s prose moves from the genuinely introspective, especially on how the Ghomeshi story shaped the discussion on sexual violence, to an over-the-top hard-boiled, pseudo-noirish tone (for example: “Bert Bruser cupped his hand to shield the wind off Lake Ontario and lit his cigarette”).
The introspection is far more interesting and noteworthy. When Donovan takes note of the Star’s Emily Mathieu and Jayme Poisson reporting contemporaneously to the Ghomeshi story on the problem of sexual assaults on university and college campuses as well as Sue Montgomery and Antonia Zerbisias’s hashtag #beenrapedneverreported, the scope of the larger story Donovan was working on, a story much bigger than the end of Ghomeshi’s career, is clear.