Day 6

Kevin Donovan reveals the journalism behind the Jian Ghomeshi scandal

Kevin Donovan was part of the team that broke the story of the assault and sexual assault allegations against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi. Now, he's written a new book called "Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation" about the work that went into it.
Kevin Donovan's book, "Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation" covers the investigation into assault and sexual assault allegations against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi. It was released October 4. (Goose Lane Editions)

He was one of Canada's biggest celebrities. There were rumours that he was abusing women. And as an investigative journalist with The Toronto Star, Kevin Donovan was tasked with uncovering whether there was any truth to those rumours.

In May of 2014, Jian Ghomeshi was the host of the popular CBC Radio program, Q, when Jesse Brown, the host of the Canadaland podcast approached The Star to collaborate on a story about Ghomeshi's use of violence against women.

Donovan was assigned to the story. Ghomeshi was eventually fired by the CBC, and Donovan has now written a book about the experience, Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation.

After three decades of doing investigations, I know how difficult it is to prove something when it's one person's word against another.

As Donovan tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, his jaw dropped when he was first told of the allegations against Ghomeshi.

"I had just come off doing the Rob Ford story, and when I learned that there were allegations of drug use with the late Mayor Ford I wasn't surprised because of his behaviour," explains Donovan. "Jian Ghomeshi, who I was a fan of and had heard for many years, I was totally shocked."

The first two witnesses

Brown approached The Star, saying he had gone as far as he could with the story. He had a witness, referred to by the pseudonym Carly, and possibly access to others, but he needed help.

Donovan and Brown met with Carly in May of 2014. And though Donovan believed her story, he knew he was in for a challenge.

"After three decades of doing investigations, I know how difficult it is to prove something when it's one person's word against another, and that proved a daunting task," says Donovan.

Carly had contacted Brown with her story not long after breaking up with Ghomeshi, who was nearly twice Carly's age. She had met him on his book tour and after texting one another they met for dinner and afterward, they went back to Ghomeshi's hotel room.

As Donovan notes in his book, Carly claimed that Ghomeshi immediately became aggressive: "He put his hands around my throat. I could not swallow. He started making growling noises."

Former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi arrives at court in Toronto, Wednesday, May 11, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Despite the violence, Carly continued a relationship with Ghomeshi, and she suspected he was seeing other women. So she took down a number from his cellphone and reached out to a woman known by the pseudonym Paula, who turned out to be Donovan and Brown's second witness.

Paula also said she was abused by Ghomeshi, but neither she nor Carly were willing to go on the record with their stories.

Brown argued that having the stories of two women, even anonymously, was enough to go forward with the story, but Donovan disagreed.

Why not publish sooner?

"I didn't think we had enough to go on," says Donovan.

Donovan notes that there was little physical evidence to support the story. Carly had deleted her texts with Ghomeshi, he wondered if the women had corroborated in any way, and he felt that there was much more work to be done.

"At The Star we try not to look at a time clock, we don't assume that just because we have an allegation we have to publish it. And that's very different than the way things are in the new social media world, but we're still a little bit old-fashioned and have to do a lot of leg work," explains Donovan.

I think it's better to be right than to be first.

Donovan continued to search for more witnesses, and he contacted Ghomeshi for a response to the allegations, though Ghomeshi did not respond. Brown was still eager to publish, and eventually the differences between Brown and Donovan ended their collaboration, something Donovan thought was best.

"I think it's better to be right than to be first," says Donovan.

John Cruikshank and the Q media panel

While Donovan continued to investigate the serious allegations against Ghomeshi, the then-publisher of The Star, John Cruikshank, continued his role as a member of the Q media panel, hosted by Ghomeshi.

Both Cruikshank and Ghomeshi knew about the investigation, and according to Donovan's book, Ghomeshi tried to influence The Star publisher to drop the story.

"[Cruikshank] decided he would keep doing the panel, he didn't think there was a problem with that, and I would agree," says Donovan.

Cruikshank removed himself from any oversight of the Ghomeshi story, and he did not discuss his Ghomeshi conversations with Donovan, nor did he pass on any information to the radio host. But Ghomeshi continued to contact Cruikshank about the investigation.

"I think he was just trying to babysit Ghomeshi's attitude. Ghomeshi was getting more and more concerned that this story was going to come out," says Donovan.

Dinner with Jian

In September of 2014, Donovan found himself at the same dinner party as Ghomeshi. In what could be called an odd twist of fate, the two discovered that they were not only seated at the same table, they were assigned to sit right beside one another.

"He said it was very awkward, and at one point he left the dinner. He said he couldn't be there talking to me, it was just too weird," says Donovan.

Donovan tried to make small talk with Ghomeshi, and did not immediately broach the topic of his investigation.

"I was surprised that he did not try and charm me," explains Donovan. "I felt that he just could have done a better job trying to shut me down, and as I did the research and understood that at the CBC he was well-coached, well-briefed by people who were his producers. I realized that he didn't have anybody with a teleprompter telling him what questions to ask and I think he felt a little bit trapped at that dinner."

Publishing the story

Feeling pressured by Donovan's investigation, as well as by online accusations and concerns raised by CBC staff, Ghomeshi's team of lawyers and publicity staff showed a video of one of his sexual encounters to Chris Boyce, then the Executive Director of CBC Radio, and Chuck Thompson, the corporation's English Head of Public Affairs.

After seeing the video, in which Ghomeshi is alleged to have broken the woman's ribs during sex play, the CBC made the decision to fire their star radio host.

Workers removed the image of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi from the CBC atirum in Toronto on Monday October 27, 2014. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

​Ghomeshi's last day on air was October 23, 2014, a Thursday. The message to the public was that Ghomeshi was on an indefinite leave. Over that weekend, Ghomeshi started a social media frenzy by publishing a Facebook post stating that he was fired because of his participation in BDSM.

That Facebook post, and his admission of violent sexual acts, led to Donovan and Brown once again working together and publishing their story in The Toronto Star about the women who claimed they were abused by Ghomeshi.

Ghomeshi later went to trial, but was never found guilty of the allegations against him. He did, however, sign a peace bond and issue an apology to former CBC producer Kathryn Borel.

Donovan says he wrote a book about the experience because he wanted to tell the whole story, going all the way back to Ghomeshi's days as a student at York University.

"I think that it's important for people to understand that there are people in the world who do bad things, and you have to understand that. This is certainly an outlier, in my experience, that somebody so well-known and so well-liked would act out like this," says Donovan. "I think people should read this book as a cautionary tale."

*Updated, October 11, 2016: This story has been updated to clarify that both Carly and Paula are pseudonyms, and not the real names of the women interviewed by Kevin Donovan and Jesse Brown in the course of the Ghomeshi investigation.