A look back at Canadian media’s mistreatment of Linda Christina Redgrave
In October 2014, CBC’s flagship nightly news program, The National, featured a woman who had contacted them, explaining that she wished to publicly share her story as a survivor of assault. In the show that aired, a silhouetted woman, her name and image blocked from viewers, detailed at length an encounter she’d had with CBC radio show Q host Jian Ghomeshi in 2002. He assaulted her twice: once in a car, when she said he violently grabbed her hair, and a second time when he hit her several times on the side of the head. It wouldn’t be until Ghomeshi was brought to trial on charges of assault nearly two years later that her name, Linda Christina Redgrave, would be heard—and reported—publicly.
Less than a month after Redgrave’s appearance on The National, Ghomeshi became the centre of a sexual assault scandal. Allegations of sexual assault against Ghomeshi from former employees and partners began back in 2010, but it wasn’t until November 26, 2014, that Ghomeshi turned himself in to Toronto police. He was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. Allegations were brought forth by three women, but in the days that followed more than 20 other people came forward. By January 2015, Ghomeshi had been charged with an additional three counts of sexual assault related to incidents involving three other women.
The trial, which began on February 1, 2016, lasted just eight days and saw Ghomeshi acquitted on all charges, as the judge said the evidence presented raised a reasonable doubt. In a Toronto courtroom, Justice William B. Horkins read his decision, in which he said that the “evidence of each complainant suffered not just from inconsistencies and questionable behaviour but was tainted by outright deception.” Yet Redgrave had shared her story before the trial. It began when she emailed Toronto Star investigative reporter Kevin Donovan, after a friend suggested she reach out and publicly share her story. Until then, Redgrave had been living in silence, believing that she was alone in her experiences. She had no idea that other women had undergone what she had. But as the story began to unfold, more and more people began coming forward, detailing experiences that echoed Redgrave’s. Ghomeshi’s response was typical: these were accusations from disgruntled girlfriends and, collectively, the women were working together to take down a powerful man.
It was then, with the encouragement of her friend, that Redgrave decided it was time to tell her story. For the first time in 11 years, she no longer felt alone. “I would have gone public right away, but there was a kind of shift period with this case where at the beginning there was such a love for Jian that anyone who was saying this was on the hate list,” says Redgrave. “And then you saw it slowly shifted and then even the people who were producing him got rid of him. Everyone left—managers, publicists. But during that period of time, I was terrified that people were going to kill me.” After reaching out to Donovan, she sent an email to CBC the following day, seeking multiple avenues to share her story. Redgrave says that after her initial contact with the media, she began receiving calls and messages from publications and journalists across Canada. “Once one finds you, the rest find you,” says Redgrave. From then on, Redgrave’s story and name appeared in publications across the country.
Looking back, Redgrave now sees what followed as a long, exploitative, and often deceptive relationship with journalists and publications. Redgrave’s experience presents two major problems. The first is that of how journalists would approach her and the line of questioning they would take in interviews. Redgrave says journalists often reached out to her under the guise of friendship, invited her on to their shows or requested interviews—only to bombard her with questions after she had explicitly asked them not to ask her inappropriate and intrusive things. Time and time again, she found herself leaving interviews furious at what she had been asked and the tone she had been spoken to in. The second issue was how she was portrayed in interviews. She found herself angrily reading articles written about her, where she says journalists often misquoted her, took her statements out of context, or framed her story inaccurately. “Of all the people who interviewed—and there have been many—there’s not too many that I have much respect for,” says Redgrave. “The way that they lay it out, you think it’s going to be one way and it’s not.”
The Ghomeshi case not only sparked a nationwide discussion on sexual assault legislation and gaps in the legal system, it also raised important questions about the portrayal of survivors and coverage of sexual assault in the media. For journalists covering the story, the case and criticism surrounding it presented a unique challenge. They were met with the tension between needing to cover the story in an unbiased way while also dealing with the importance of including larger social conversations and analysis in their reporting. Many of the journalists Redgrave spoke with, she says, failed to rise to this challenge, producing coverage that reflected the rape culture embedded in legal and social institutions across Canada. They also failed to cover the story with the delicacy that crime stories require.
The job of mainstream news reporting is to cover the conversations and events of major institutions and people. Romayne Smith Fullerton, associate professor in the faculty of information and media studies at Western University, says that this presents journalists with a challenge: If the institutions—such as the political, legal and education system—perpetuate misogyny and inequality, then how can journalists produce fair reporting? According to the West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund, survivors of sexual assault in Canada often choose not to report crimes out of shame—along with the knowledge that these cases rarely end in convictions. This fear relates to the sociocultural barriers associated with reporting sexual assault crimes, since survivors, especially those from already marginalized backgrounds, understand that stereotypes and social stigma around sexual assault often minimize the seriousness of the crime or cast blame on them.
Fullerton says that the existence of these cultural beliefs, which permeate all institutions, puts journalists in the position of filling gaps. However, concerns around appearing biased toward survivors and the need to meet strict deadlines often prevent journalists from covering larger societal conversations in news stories. “Somebody, for example, couldn’t say, ‘Here is the coverage of the Jian Ghomeshi trial for sexual assault allegations, but basically the justice institution is skewed toward the defendant. So, the coverage is going to make it look [like] the complainant isn’t legit even if she is.’” Since the justice system operates on the assumption of innocence, the burden is left on the crown to prove that someone is guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of committing the crime, explains Fullerton. Combined, the emphasis on news reporting and the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle leave journalists with little time or space to provide deeper analysis in their work. This in turn leaves readers with an unclear understanding of how the justice system works, why the trial is progressing the way it is, what systemic issues might be revealed by the process, and why complainants are in the position that they are in.
Redgrave thinks this pressure also led reporters and news outlets to try to find the most sensational headlines at the expense of her and the other complainants. The pressure of the industry often left Redgrave feeling as if she were being used by the media, which were working her to get the best possible story. She recalls moments, like an interview she did with The Morning Show on Global News, when journalists would reassure her that they would be respectful of her boundaries, only to go back on that once the lights went bright and the cameras started rolling. She says that she had explicitly told the journalists she wouldn’t talk about certain things and they had assured her they would respect that. However, once the interview started, the first questions they asked were ones Redgrave had specifically flagged. “I had to stop them because they didn’t give a rat’s ass,” she says. As soon as the show started, Redgrave found herself in the hot seat.
Redgrave remembers an evening when a journalist followed her on her way to visit a friend. She had left her place in Toronto, heading to her friend’s place way out in the city’s east end. After getting off the subway she got lost, and a man suddenly came up behind her. She had recognized him from earlier in her commute. Redgrave says that he introduced himself, told her he recognized her, and asked if she was willing to chat for a minute. He wanted to speak to her for a story he was writing on Ghomeshi. She felt ambushed and reluctantly answered his questions. What came of that street interview was a story that she said was inaccurate and filled with misquotes. “I phoned him up and I gave him shit,” she says. “I don’t remember what exactly he said, but I said, ‘I didn’t say that,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m trying to get a story.’” Beyond these pressures, preexisting stereotypes and misconceptions around sexual assault and the people who experience it impact the quality of quick, hot coverage, especially in high-profile cases where news organizations compete for the best stories and breaking-news hits. “Research on media representation consistently shows that news media reproduces misconceptions and stereotypes about sexual violence,” says Bianca Fileborn, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Melbourne in Australia. This includes disproportionately reporting on violent assaults, producing victim-blaming narratives, and making excuses for perpetrators—such as the common “nice guy” narrative that focuses on the good qualities of perpetrators rather than their actions.
Misogynistic portrayals include comments about survivors’ behaviour or clothing choice, their demeanour or actions before, during, or after the assault, along with commentary on their personal lives, employment, and sex life. This type of coded misogyny appeared in a Toronto Star article titled “CBC Fires Jian Ghomeshi Over Sex Allegations,” in which journalists Jesse Brown and Kevin Donovan wrote that the “women, all educated and employed, said Ghomeshi’s actions shocked them.” The quote implies that readers, and in turn courts, should view these women and their claims as more believable—simply because they are educated, employed, and did not expect it. It portrays them as stable, trustworthy women who didn’t ask to be victimized, and in turn are worthy of public sympathy and support. This type of characterization also falls into the longstanding misogynistic trope of the “good” woman, says Barbara M. Freeman, former journalist and adjunct research professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. That trope comes from the historical legal perception of a woman who would “strenuously fight her attacker and quickly report him to the police,” and therefore demonstrate that she is moral enough to be undeserving of rape or sexual assault. Brown and Donovan’s claim that the complainants in the Ghomeshi case were all educated, employed, and surprised by the attack demonstrates the opposite of the “asking for it” narrative. The journalists attempted to build a sympathetic character portrayal by making the women appealing and attractive, and therefore undeserving.
There are also examples of coverage from CBC that focused on the illegitimacy of complainants’ stories, using headlines like “Jian Ghomeshi Trial: Defence Argues Testimony ‘Riddled with Lies,’ Calls for Acquittal” and “Jian Ghomeshi and Lucy DeCoutere Cuddled in Park After Alleged Assault, Trial Hears,” both of which present single-sided stories in defence of Ghomeshi. CBC, Ghomeshi’s former employer, helped sensationalize the story, with one journalist writing, “The trial, which began in Toronto on Feb. 1, 2016, and lasted eight days, was full of dramatic moments, surprising twists, and unexpected evidence that would compare to some of the most intense television courtroom dramas.” As Freeman writes in her chapter of Covering Canadian Crime, a book that looks at issues in crime reporting and how journalists can do better, “The social standings of both victim and attacker also played a role in how seriously police, judges and juries settled these cases.”
Though Freeman notes in her book that these attitudes were more explicitly voiced in Canadian courts and society in the 1960s and 1970s, the reference in Brown and Donovan’s Star article to similar misogynistic views shows that they are still common today. The real turning point in her relationship with the media, says Redgrave, came after the judge read out his verdict. What first felt like supportive and open conversations with journalists quickly turned into attacks on her character. She describes this as some journalists shifting their focus away from how bad Ghomeshi is to how bad the complainants are. She says that some spoke to her in accusatory tones and asked her pointed questions about whether she was a liar. One journalist even suggested she apologize to Ghomeshi. “When you’re first getting interviewed, you almost get the sense that they’re on your side and they are just collecting information,” says Redgrave. “After the verdict it was almost like, ‘How could you?’ There was this tone of condemning you, like, ‘Look what you did.’”
There was also a hyperfixation both in the media and during the trial on the appearance of the complainants and their behaviour after the alleged assault, says Redgrave. For her, it was questions regarding the length and style of her bleach blonde hair and continuing criticism of her inability to remember whether she had hair extensions at the time of her assault. Redgrave says that the attention paid to these minute details was not only ridiculous but a reflection of the continuing influence of rape culture. Fileborn says that this combination of uncontextualized news coverage and the appearance of misogynistic tropes can leave coverage of sexual assault skewed, incomplete, and harmful. “News media reporting plays a role in shaping public attitudes and understandings of sexual violence, so this type of reporting contributes toward a broader social and cultural context that minimizes sexual violence, blames survivors for their own experiences, and excuses and minimizes the actions of perpetrators,” she says.
Reporting on sexual assault often struggles with what Fileborn calls the “grey areas” of sexual assault—incidents that are considered ambiguous or outside of the legal definition of sexual assault. An example of a grey area could be when a woman engages in sex that is unwanted or feels ambivalent about, while still expressing her consent to the other person, says Fileborn. These “grey areas” fit into the larger issue of rape culture and the idea that women can be persuaded into sexual acts despite earlier refusal or rejection. “In relation to media reporting, I don’t think that these grey-area cases are routinely reported on or discussed, unless they involve high-profile individuals,” she says.
A high-profile example of this type of sexual assault was the Aziz Ansari case, where a woman using the pseudonym “Grace” accused the actor of sexual misconduct. She told Babe.net that he had pressured her into sex while on a date, ignoring signals that she was uncomfortable. Fileborn says that coverage of this case was filled with misogynistic tropes and victim-blaming narratives. “In the case of Aziz Ansari, we saw the media drawing on a range of rape myths/misconceptions to discount the woman’s experience on sexual violence,” says Fileborn. The Ansari case, she says, was minimized as a “bad date” or an example of a woman not being vocal enough about her unwillingness to engage in a sexual act. It didn’t fit into societal understanding of “real rape,” which is depicted as assault that includes extreme physical force and violence, coercion, or discomfort.
In the context of the Ghomeshi case, the idea of “grey areas” of assault also comes into play. Though allegations against Ghomeshi included violent sexual acts, such as hitting, biting, and sexual coercion, there were no allegations of penetrative rape. Rather, while the media coverage focused on complaints of inappropriate behaviour, Ghomeshi’s own claim was that he enjoyed aspects of BDSM sex—sex that includes domination, submission, and forms of control, as well as role-playing and sadomasochism. His claim was that this was part of a smear campaign orchestrated by women who were bitter or regretted having sex with him. This narrative was only heightened by the public discourse surrounding the attitudes and behaviour of the complainants. Most notable was Lucy DeCoutere, a Canadian actress who said that she stayed at Ghomeshi’s house for a while after he allegedly slapped and choked her.
When questioned, DeCoutere said that she was raised to make people around her happy and comfortable and to be polite, and therefore felt wrong about leaving the house. As Zosia Bielski explains in her article titled, “How Politeness Conditioning Can Lead to Confusion About Sexual Assaults” for The Globe and Mail, the comment was shocking to many in the public and garnered mass media attention. For women it didn’t seem as surprising, given the fact that they are so often socialized to be polite people-pleasers. For Redgrave, her experience has taught her that reactions to sexual assault are diverse and that many women struggle to make sense of what’s happened to them. “Actually, a lot of women I have spoken to…a lot of them do have contact after because you’re trying to normalize things,” says Redgrave. “It’s a weird place to be. If it’s someone you know and you start to make a fuss, then life as you knew it suddenly changes.”
When Romayne Smith Fullerton was a student in journalism school, she was taught to view herself as an outsider—someone with no connection to the story, the people in it, or the community it was related to. Her job as a journalist was to be, as one of her journalism professors put it, “an interchangeable cog in a wheel.” Now, as an associate professor in the journalism program at Western University, she says that she teaches her students to practice an “ethics of care” approach to the craft. For Fullerton, the smartest, safest, and most educated approach to these kinds of stories is by taking into account the vulnerable position of complainants, while also providing important context to stories. By employing this approach to sexual assault stories, journalists not only produce better work, but also help to better protect their sources.
Doing this encourages journalists to view themselves as members of the community, inherently connected to the people and society around them. Fullerton says that this encourages journalists to not view themselves as detached, because they become implicated in an entire system. This allows them to report on issues in a trauma-informed way, and to approach stories and subjects with genuine empathy and care—not just as a means to an end. Reporting using the approach also means you need to set aside your preconceived notions and truly listen to people in the community in a nonjudgmental, inclusive way. Part of this includes storytelling devices such as contextualization in news pieces, analysis reports—as well as caution around the use of language and ideas that reflect misogynistic ideas and rape culture.
Journalist Kate Sommers-Dawes demonstrated this approach in her story, “How the Jian Ghomeshi Case Showed Rape Culture in Action.” Though this piece, published by American media company Mashable, does not directly include the voice of the complainants, Sommers-Dawes goes through the arguments of the defence and Horkins’ statement to provide an analysis of how the verdict was reflective of victim-blaming. She also provides statistics that show how unlikely it is that the complainants made fake claims against Ghomeshi. Reading Sommers-Dawes’ piece shows what an analysis of facts can provide. CBC, which also published a piece breaking down Horkins’ statement, did so in an entirely different way. The article, titled “Jian Ghomeshi Found Not Guilty on Choking and All Sex Assault Charges,” was broken down into sections, focusing on claims Horkin made about the untrustworthiness of the complaints, including “Serious Deficiencies,” “Completely Inconsistent,” and “Playing Chicken with the Justice System.” Nowhere in the piece is the added context of rape culture, the unlikehood of false reporting, and the impact the trial had on the lives of the people who came forward.
Redgrave says that looking back on her experience with the media, she wishes more journalists asked for clarification on what she was saying, so as to better understand the intent of her comments, instead of making their own assumptions about what she was trying to say. For her, this practice also relates to trauma-informed reporting, a practice similar to the “ethics of care” approach wherein journalists are mindful of the experiences that subjects have gone through and work to build trusting relationships with the people they are reporting on. Follow-up reports, such as stories that analyze the impact cases have on survivors, the accused, and the community as a whole are also important. These types of pieces provide important context to cases while also taking a trauma-informed approach to reporting, which allows the journalists to build trusting relationships with both the subjects of their stories and the community. Journalists should also seek to tell stories that do not gain high-profile coverage.
According to Statistics Canada, as of 2019 more than 90 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to the police. Of the small minority that are reported, only 42 percent result in a conviction. Since it is a widespread yet underreported crime, covering low-profile cases gives room for survivors to tell their stories and helps show how ordinary circumstances around sexual assault are. It can also shed light on the complexities of sexual violence and consent, which can branch out into larger legal and societal discussions. “The more the media keeps it out there and alive, it doesn’t go away. People are listening and people are watching, and people will rally, scream, and yell,” says Redgrave. It is also important that complainants who come forward are aware of the legal implications of telling their story publicly. When Redgrave first appeared as a silhouette on CBC back in 2014, she had yet to go to the police and was under the impression that her case had no legal grounds. It wasn’t until after the interview was broadcast and her statements from that interview were used in court that she realized the consequences of her actions. Redgrave now says that transparency from outlets about the impact of statements and interviews is an important part of protecting survivors. While the media play a large role in changing public attitudes, they must also ensure that the lives and well-being of the people whose stories they are telling are being taken into consideration.
In 2018, The New York Review of Books published an article by Ghomeshi entitled “Reflections from a Hashtag,” where he lamented the case brought against him, reflected on the public shame he says he experienced, and acknowledged that he had crossed boundaries in his life. However, he stopped short of admitting to the truth of any allegations, which he continued to claim were entirely false. At the time of the piece’s release, Ghomeshi had essentially been exiled from Canadian media and the publishing of this essay was the first time readers had heard from the once high-profile journalist since before the trial. When Redgrave first saw that article, she laughed. Then she felt a deep sense of fear—for the women he describes meeting in the piece and fear for all of the women she says she’s spoken to who have experienced abuse at his hands and have never publicly told their stories. She also felt anger toward the publication for ever allowing a story of that nature to be published in the first place.
The piece, which she describes as “bizarre,” however, allowed her and other complainants to share their own story in a piece called “Responses to ‘Reflections from a Hashtag.’” “I think that my favourite thing to have out there was my article from The New York Review [of Books] with the other women,” says Redgrave. “That was my favourite because I got to put out what I wanted, there was nobody to twist it or change the tone.” Although she has faced immense backlash for coming forward from her family, the media, and the public alike, Redgrave doesn’t regret telling her story. Ignoring the advice of lawyers, she was the only complainant to get the publication ban lifted on her name, so that her identity and her story would be out in the public. “Why should I hide?” says Redgrave. “I’m not hiding.”
About the author
Rinna Diamantakos is Senior Editor Print at the Review of Journalism.