Q&A: Kevin Donovan, the Star reporter whose book, out today, tells the rest of the Ghomeshi story
In 2014, the Toronto Star’s chief investigator, Kevin Donovan, joined a probe into Jian Ghomeshi that would eventually result in the CBC star losing his job and being charged with, and cleared of, multiple counts of criminal sexual assault. In his new book, Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation, Donovan shares behind the scenes details about how the story came together and how Ghomeshi’s team fought to prevent it from being published. We spoke with Donovan about his decision to write a book over the objections of some of his sources, the time he sat beside Ghomeshi at a TIFF party, and why Big Ears Teddy was a big deal.
You covered the Ghomeshi story in great detail in the Star. Why did you also decide to write a book about it?
It’s not the first time I’ve done a book on a story I’ve been involved in. In this case, there were a lot of things that I wanted to explain in more detail than you get in the news pages, and I wanted to explore the issues: why some women would come forward, why some wouldn’t. I wanted to look more deeply into his past, to explain a bit about how journalism works, and to provide some behind the scenes information.
Is there a particular bombshell that you think will get a lot of attention now that the book is out?
There are what you might call “sound bites.” For example: Ghomeshi’s calculation of the number of women he had been involved with, which is 1,500. And I think people will be interested to learn how hard he and others worked behind the scenes to stop the story from coming out, or to mute it in some way. I hope people are also interested in the development of what they call “the conversation”—this notion that Ghomeshi’s story caused people to start talking about their own stories. I write about Sue Montgomery’s #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag, which caught a lot of attention. I think that’s really important, and I hope the book explains in detail how difficult it is for people to come forward and tell these stories.
Some of the women who shared their stories with you as part of your investigation were not okay with you writing a book. Did their objections give you pause?
My commitment and that of the publisher was that we would do everything we possibly could to make sure that people remained and will remain anonymous. I think we achieved that. My opinion is that you cannot unwrite history.
There was also the notion that by rehashing the details of the case you could be retraumatizing the women who shared their stories.
I understand that this is a sensitive topic, but I made a decision that I was going to tell this story. If they are upset, that’s unfortunate, but I hope they would pause and think, “You know what? We wanted this story out.”
In the book, you describe the only time you ever spoke with Ghomeshi face to face. It was at a TIFF party just a few weeks before the story broke. At that point you had spent months investigating the guy. What surprised you most about meeting him in person?
I was expecting somebody who would deal with me a lot differently. I incorrectly thought of Ghomeshi as a journalist who was used to interviewing people. In retrospect, I should have prepared myself for a radio host who didn’t have anybody feeding him his lines that night. He seemed to have no knowledge of the seriousness of the issues that were facing him. He didn’t understand the process of investigative journalism. He kept saying, “My lawyers have told you there’s no story.” At that point he’d been in the media for 15 years. I thought he could have controlled the situation a lot better. I was trying to chat with him, with the ultimate goal of getting him to confess. I mentioned sports, I mentioned my kids and he didn’t pick up on any of those things, as I’d heard him do when he was interviewing people on Q. He’s quite an unusual person.
A lot of people in the book reference Ghomeshi’s charm. Did you get a glimpse of that?
No, I didn’t see that. I think what I found is that he didn’t try to charm me. I guess he was probably very nervous and didn’t want to make a misstep. I’d heard that he had body image issues. He brightened up when I mentioned he looked like he was in good shape.
In the book you describe your collaborative and sometimes combative relationship with Jesse Brown, the Canadaland journalist who brought the story to the Star. One of the disagreements you had was over including information about Ghomeshi’s teddy bear, Big Ears Teddy, in one of the Star’s reports. Brown felt the teddy trivialized the story, whereas you say the bear was a “key detail that revealed a great deal about JG’s personality.”
I think it shows, for Ghomeshi, a harkening back to childhood. He strikes me in some ways as somebody who has never entirely grown up. Because of his anxiety he had this bear, which was a “comfort bear.” The fact that somebody would use their comfort bear in a situation where they were causing so much discomfort (which is obviously an understatement) is a detail that I thought should be included. I think it worked out, and I think it did resonate with people. There was an editorial cartoon that saw some humour in it. That wasn’t my intention. On his show, Jesse includes lots of details that are unflattering to many people. Hopefully he understands that he is guilty of the same thing: including details in his work because he finds them interesting.
What is your relationship with Brown like today? It seems a bit glaring that he doesn’t get a thank you in the acknowledgements.
Right, yeah. I think Jesse and I have a lot of professional disagreements. He doesn’t like the organization I work for, or frankly any large media organization. He’s against what he would call “big media.” I don’t like the way he behaved when he was at the Star. While he’s not in the acknowledgements, I do acknowledge in the book that he’s the one who got the email from the original woman and brought us the story. We’re different. I don’t know if it’s old versus new media, but there are some real differences. He’s not someone I’d ever want to work with on a story again. I’m sure he would say the same thing about me.
You write that as your investigation wore on you started to feel like Ghomeshi’s alleged behaviour was “more serial in nature than [you] thought.” Can you explain what you mean?
It was as I was putting all of the stories in a timeline and there were just so many similarities. I would be interviewing one woman and her story would be so similar to what I had heard from other women. Whether it was how he would always say, “You’re the one for me. I want to get married and have kids.” Or how he would tell them that they needed to change their appearance. And then the actual allegations, the choking and the hitting. Women who never knew each other described a person who was trying out the same behaviour on different people. People I interviewed from Ghomeshi’s York University days tell very similar stories—only at that point the women were still the same age as him.
You mentioned earlier the 1,500 women figure, which is something Ghomeshi shared with his advisors when they were trying to kill the story. That’s roughly 58 women a year for 26 years. Do you buy it?
It’s got to be an exaggeration, I think. But it’s something he made quite clear to his advisors. Who knows? But the fact that a person would even say that says a lot about him as a person.
In his case, what do you think it says?
One, I think he’s still the young lad from Thornhill who was seen as a bit of a nerd and who didn’t get Wendy, the girl he pursued in high school. Now he’s a rock star and he wants to pump himself up and show people there are a lot of women coming after him.
You have a high-school-age daughter. How did you talk to her about all this?
My daughter is an athlete and a strong student, and she says she’s the kind of kid that none of this would ever happen to. One of the things I try to tell her is that bad things happen to good people, and you need to be vigilant.
Do you feel proud to have been part of breaking this story?
I mean, I don’t ever say that I’m proud. I’m happy that people came to Jesse Brown, and that he came to the Star, and that we got the story out there. But it’s a distasteful story. When people ask me about what kinds of stories I’ve done, I don’t usually mention Jian Ghomeshi and I don’t usually mention Rob Ford. This is a very sad story. Hopefully some good will come of it.