You don't like the Ghomeshi verdict, fine, but don't take it out on the judge

Even before Justice William Horkins finished reading his reasons for acquitting Jian Ghomeshi, social media went on a rampage — against the judge. Hashtag timeout, Neil Macdonald says, you might want to read his actual reasoning.

It was an emotional trial to be sure, the best tonic might be to actually read the verdict

Justice William B. Horkins, centre, reads his decision in the trial of Jian Ghomeshi, at left, as Ghomeshi's lawyer, Marie Henein, at right, looks on. (Pam Davies)

Even before Ontario Court of Justice Judge William Horkins finished reading his reasons for acquitting Jian Ghomeshi, social media began to fill up with the inchoate, point-and-screech bile for which it's renowned.

The judge was immediately portrayed as an aging, shameful, misogynistic, hate-filled, victim-blaming, ignorant, abusive, sickening, brutally vilifying, mansplaining, privileged white male.

Those words are all chosen verbatim from tweets, some of them posted by educated people.

Other, cruder stuff, as usual, came from anonymous posters, and there was plenty of the usual big middle finger.

Yes, there were those who commended the judge for doing a good job overseeing an emotional trial, and there were people who distinguished justice from revenge.

But far more popular was the ad hominem attack, a perfect example of which was offered by Andrew Burke, an associate professor of cultural studies at the University of Winnipeg.

In his professorial view, "That was a total masterclass in misogynist, arrogant windbaggery just now from Judge Horkins."

Further, Burke tweeted, Horkins was "competitive in the stupidest and most offensive thing said ever category."


The quote Burke and a great many others held up as having perfectly proved Horkins's deep, woman-hating bias was this: "We must fight against the stereotype that all sexual assault complaints are truthful."

Well, first of all, Horkins did not say that. Had Burke or any of the judge's other detractors read the judgment, which was immediately available online, they could have read what he actually wrote, and its context.

"Courts must guard against applying false stereotypes concerning the expected conduct of complainants," Horkins wrote, adding: "The reasonableness of reactive human behaviour in the dynamics of a relationship can be variable and unpredictable. 

"However," he continued, "the twists and turns of the complainants in this trial illustrate the need to be vigilant in avoiding the equally dangerous false assumption that sexual assault complainants are always truthful.

"Each individual and each unique factual scenario must be assessed according to their own particular circumstances."

How a statement that reasonable can be taken as an assertion that all women lie (as one of the complainants told reporters after the verdict) is baffling. And yet it was.

Earning trust

In fact, Horkins only made the observation after describing in relentless detail how Ghomeshi's accusers had colluded, misled and lied, to reporters, to police, to prosecutors and ultimately, to the court itself.

"Each complainant," he concluded, "demonstrated, to some degree, a willingness to ignore their oath to tell the truth on more than one occasion."

Jian Ghomeshi leaves court in Toronto on Thursday, March 24, 2016 after being acquitted on all charges of sexual assault and choking following a trial that sparked a nationwide debate on how the justice system treats victims. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Referring to a witness whose excuse was that she was merely trying to "navigate" the proceeding, Horkin aridly replied that " 'Navigating' this sort of proceeding is really quite simple: tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

The lies destroyed the value of the complainants' evidence, he said, and created reasonable doubt. And that was that.

The list of falsehoods, many of them under oath, have been repeated endlessly in earlier accounts of the trial; they may be titillating, but they aren't worth repeating here.

What matters is that they were told, and, as Horkins put it, "The harsh reality is that once a witness has been shown to be deceptive and manipulative in giving their evidence, that witness can no longer expect the court to consider them to be a trusted source of the truth."


To a fair chunk of the public, though — led by victims-rights advocates and the people who create hashtags like #BelieveTheVictim — Horkins's legal logic is just so much patriarchal, victim-blaming gibberish. And Ghomeshi is damned well guilty, and this reasonable doubt stuff is just slippery legalese.

So they turn to social media in rage. And it's hard to stand up to the heat they can generate. Reporters certainly feel it. Judges must, too.

Jian Ghomeshi trial: Complainants describe their court experience

7 years ago
Duration 15:37
Ioanna Roumeliotis presents a case study of the Jian Ghomeshi trial featuring exclusive interviews with the three complainants about their experiences in court. Ghomeshi, a former CBC Radio host, was found not guilty

Realizing that, CBC management issued guidance to all news departments dealing with the Ghomeshi verdict. It instructed, in part, that:

"There are those who disagree strenuously with the outcome of this trial. Our audiences will be interested in hearing those opinions. But it's important that our coverage continue to pay careful attention to facts, evidence, balance and respect for the legal process. Take the time, if possible, to read and digest the actual judgment. When reporting contrary views, be sure to provide perspective and balance. Above all, let's not overweight the voices of protest and suggest or imply that the acquittal is somehow unjust or unfair to the complainants."

Good advice, I'd say, especially the bit about actually reading the judgment.

Because if you do, you will see that Horkins acknowledged his finding of reasonable doubt "is not the same as deciding in any positive way that these events never happened."

He even noted that there were some common features to all three of the complainants' accounts of their encounters with Ghomeshi.

But it was their lies that created the reasonable doubt, he said, and once that was created, "Even if you believe the accused is probably guilty or likely guilty, that is not sufficient. In those circumstances you must give the benefit of the doubt to the accused and acquit."

Which he proceeded to do.

Windbaggery? Misogyny? Victim-blaming?

Sorry. What I heard today was a senior jurist behaving with the rigour expected of someone in his office.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.