On the day of his acquittal, the effects of the media frenzy surrounding Jian Ghomeshi are abundantly evident.
I arrived at Old City Hall to a sea of cameras and white-topped canopies, pitched just below the building’s iconic front steps. It may have looked like a party or the honouring of an anniversary to anyone unaware of the look-ahead for the day. It was anything but.
Outside, camera operators stood, bundled, freezing rain pelleting their reddened faces. They were waiting for one shot: the arrival of former CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, flanked by his defence team, waltzing up the stairs to the Ontario Court of Justice to hear the ruling of his highly publicized sexual assault trial.
Inside, a second-floor courtroom was packed; reporters lined up at 6 a.m. to nab one of 30 coveted spots in the same room as the accused. The rest of us—myself included—jammed into an overflow room on the main floor, about 50 seats row by row. Watercolour paintings in gold frames lined the wall behind the TV screen where we watched Justice William B. Horkins acquit Ghomeshi of all five charges against him.
This is the Ghomeshi spectacle: throngs of reporters, photographers, and videographers all desperate for a piece of him, however uncouth they may be.
The scene was no different last month, when the trial began. (Ghomeshi faced four charges of sexual assault and one charge of overcoming resistance, choking, brought forth by three complainants. The charges were based on incidents dating back to the early 2000s.) Front pages graced the face of the once well-loved radio host. Cameras swarmed his car when he arrived at the courthouse. In line for the overflow room, I overheard an anecdote about a reporter who preferred watching the bulk of the trial on screen, not inside the courtroom. “I want to see his face,” the reporter said.
Little changed today. When Justice Horkins began reading his decision, reporters typed frantically: “Ghomeshi, leaning back, in a navy blue suit, head resting on hand.”
For a trial and its accompanying media frenzy that was so focused on Ghomeshi, the ruling itself bore little reference to the former radio star. Instead, in the hour and a half that it took Justice Horkins to read his decision, tweets buoyed from the courthouse to the ether describing the multiple inconsistencies in the complainants’ testimonies referenced in the ruling. The judge reminded the court of seemingly innocuous details: how one complainant changed her statement to police that she was wearing hair extensions during an encounter with Ghomeshi; how another sent Ghomeshi flowers and engaged in “kissing sessions” with him after her assault; that the complainants’ behaviour after their assaults—attempts, they say, to normalize what happened to them—was characterized as “odd.”
One complainant, actress and Air Force captain Lucy Decoutere, was further discredited by the judge for speaking to the media about her experience with Ghomeshi. Justice Horkins also questioned Decoutere’s credibility for later welcoming the “media shit” that would come about through a trial.
But of Ghomeshi, Justice Horkins was brief: the accused did not testify, as was his fundamental right.
It seems like a lose-lose situation for the many women affected by sexual assault. Even when the media so strongly reports on the alleged perpetrator, his actions were not the focus in court, with survivors’ stories predominantly examined in the 30-page ruling. When those same survivors are willing open up to the media with their stories, told in their own voices, it is held against them.
The coverage has also had an adverse effect on other survivors. In line for the overflow room, I met Deb Singh, a counsellor at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre. According to Singh, crisis line calls increased exponentially throughout February, when the trial was ongoing. “There are people I’ve counselled who are beyond triggered by the media attention on the case,” she said. “There has been such a focus on reporting and believability, but not on stopping rapists from raping.”
Within the confines of the law, Justice Horkins told the court, “The judgment depends entirely on the credibility and the reliability of each complainant as a witness.” In so many sexual assault cases, physical evidence simply does not exist. For other survivors, Ghomeshi’s acquittal is a reminder of the difficulty in proving an assault beyond a reasonable doubt.
Some media organizations have gone to great lengths to focus on the trial’s effects on women. But others succumb to the urge to plaster Ghomeshi’s face online and in the papers, and get caught up in the spectacle. It becomes easy to forget about the human implications, and miss the point.
After Justice Horkins acquitted Ghomeshi, I turned to rush out of the overflow room. Behind me was a young woman, eyes red, cheeks moistened from tears. I don’t know her story, nor could I find the right words in me to ask. But, to me, she represented the harsh reality of the ruling. Outside, a showing of solidarity: protesters held placards, one of which read, “We Believe Survivors.”
I left before Ghomeshi emerged from the courthouse.
In June, Ghomeshi heads back to court to fight another charge of sexual assault, addressing a workplace incident from 2008. And so the spectacle begins again.