Secret Life: Kevin Donovan on the Jian Ghomeshi investigation

Staff Reporter

Kevin Donovan, investigative reporter at the Toronto Star, speaking at the Ryerson School of Journalism on Oct. 18, 2016. (Jasmine Bala)
Kevin Donovan, investigative reporter at the Toronto Star, speaking at the Ryerson School of Journalism on Oct. 18, 2016. (Jasmine Bala)

Transparency is key in earning public trust and that is why journalist Kevin Donovan says he’s tried to be as open as possible about his investigative techniques in his new book about investigating the case of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi.

At an October 18 event at the Ryerson School of Journalism, Donovan, an investigative reporter and editor at the Toronto Star, discussed writing Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation and how he reported on allegations of sexual violence made against Ghomeshi.

Donovan said that the more journalists identify the processes they use in their reporting – especially when publishing allegations such as the ones about Ghomeshi – the more likely the public is to trust them.

“We have to really be transparent in journalism, to say if we don’t have something,” said Donovan. “[Before publishing, we go through] a series of tests that are not written down, but are in my brain. If they are allegations, we have to make sure we present them as such.”

Secret Life focuses on the stories of 17 women and two men who allege Ghomeshi abused them. Donovan gives the reader a behind-the-scenes look inside the Star’s investigation from beginning to end. He goes back to Ghomeshi’s days as a student at York University and recounts the story through to Ghomeshi’s departure from CBC and criminal trial.

Asking tough questions is a part of the journalistic process that people often don’t like, but is an essential part of good journalism, Donovan told a crowd largely made up of journalism students.

“In one of the iterations of the productions of this book, I was asked to consider removing sections where I was asking questions like, ‘Why did you stay with him?’ I asked that of Carly [a pseudonym for one of the women] in an interview which is in the first chapter of the book,” he said.

“One of the things that’s really important people understand is [that] the role of journalists as truth seekers is to really, truly seek the truth and you cannot seek the truth by just hearing what people say – you have to ask questions … I think [it’s] important for people who read this book and other books like [this] to understand that there is a process to good journalism. Bloggers, podcasters [and] people on twitter serve an important role in society, but they don’t have the same checks and balances that good investigative journalists have.”

Writing the book, he said, presented significant challenges as some important sources refused to be included in the narrative. Two women, who had initially reached out to the Star to get their story out, emailed Donovan to say they didn’t want any part of their stories to be in his book.

“I could not tell this story or this book without their experiences because it would be a huge void … I would have to write a book that would basically have two blank chapters and I’m not going to do that,” he said. “Given that the information is still out there and it lives on the internet, I thought it wouldn’t make any sense to not include it.

“What I did, with the help of the editors and both publishers that had an involvement in this book and with my lawyers, is make sure that there’s no way that even Sherlock Holmes could find out who these people are. So, that means removing a lot of the story, which I did … I knew that [adding in their stories] would upset [those two] people. But I hope that there’s enough good that comes out of the book that they will one day understand that you can’t un-write history. And that what I wrote is the history of what happened.”

Ghomeshi was fired from CBC on Oct. 26, 2014, after two executives were shown videos of a woman he had dated who had bruising from a broken rib. Ghomeshi responded with a Facebook post, that has been since removed, saying he was dismissed because of the risk of his “private sex life being made public as a result of a campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend and a freelance writer.”

Ghomeshi was acquitted on four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking on March 24, 2016. Almost two months after this, another charge of sexual assault was withdrawn after he apologized to former colleague Kathryn Borel in court.

Donovan’s investigation into Ghomeshi initially began when Canadaland podcaster Jesse Brown brought the allegations to the Star months before Ghomeshi’s Facebook message was posted. At that point, Donovan said, the newspaper could not publish the story because they couldn’t back up the allegations.

“I just couldn’t figure out a way to find people,” Donovan said. “I mean, I found people that I was told he may have allegedly abused and some of the people that I talked to just lied to me. Partner-on-partner violence is a very difficult thing to prove. There’s no bank record, there’s no contract. This is one person’s word against another and if one person doesn’t want to talk about it, then you don’t have the information.”

“You can’t just go around and say, ‘I’m looking for victims of Jian Ghomeshi.’ Although, if you did it on Twitter, you might have actually gotten them – but that’s just the wrong thing to do.”

Watch the full discussion below: