“I think Jian is wonderful. Likely TMI for an old fogey like me, but his private life is none of our beeswax.”
After her comments sparked a torrent of criticism, May deleted them and published a statement explaining that she hadn’t yet read a Toronto Star story which contained allegations from three women who say the “Q” radio host was physically violent to them without their consent during sexual encounters or in the run-up to such encounters. Through his lawyer, Ghomeshi told the Star that he “does not engage in non-consensual role play or sex and any suggestion of the contrary is defamatory.”
In an interview with The Canadian Press, May said her emotional state was affected by the attack on Parliament Hill last week and she did not think carefully before posting her initial comments.
“I have to say the last week for me has been unusual,” she said by phone from Ottawa. “I don’t want to overplay this because people might think I was pandering, but it’s true. I’ve been shaken up by what happened here Wednesday.”
“So I guess one thing I’ve learned from this incident is: don’t reply to tweets, don’t stay on, don’t stay engaged on Twitter when you know that you’re feeling kind of emotional.”
May is among several public figures who have waded into the heated online debate surrounding Ghomeshi – which experts and lawyers say can be a dangerous venture. While the facts around the case remain murky, many on social media have been quick to cast judgment.
Canadian musician Owen Pallett dropped a bombshell Tuesday on Facebook, speaking out against Ghomeshi, whom he considers a friend. Meanwhile, electro-pop artist Lights – who is managed by the radio host – has stood by him, writing, “I love you Jian. You’re my super hero.”
May said her immediate reaction to news that the CBC had cut ties with Ghomeshi was an emotional one. After the radio star published the Facebook post Sunday, she said she believed that was the full story.
She added that her last interaction with Ghomeshi was to send him a note of condolence after the recent death of his father and that her immediate response was compassion.
“It was almost instantaneous concern,” she said. “I thought, ‘Boy, that must have been hard to reveal that much about your personal life (in the Facebook post).’ This is a tough time for him and that’s all I was thinking. It never occurred to me that there was an accusation of violence.”
May didn’t read the Star story until after Question Period the following day. She continued to defend Ghomeshi in the interim, telling one user, “I have known Jian and something at work here doesn’t make sense. Innocent until proven guilty.”
Many have interpreted that statement as meaning that May does not believe that rape culture exists. Rather, the MP says she meant that she does not support rape culture.
“This is the problem with Twitter. The whole thread isn’t clear to people,” she said.
Unfortunately, people tend to remember the initial reaction, not the correction, said Jeffrey Dvorkin, director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus.
“It’s the nature of accuracy in the media that the first gesture is the one that’s remembered. It’s not the follow-up or the correction or the contextualization,” he said.
“The first statement is emotional. The second statement is intellectual. People always remember the emotional.”
Dvorkin has followed the social media reaction closely as it unfolded over the past few days. He says what struck him is how quickly people have jumped to conclusions.
“Social media encourages opinion. It doesn’t have the same force of encouraging thoughtful discourse that occurs after all the facts are known. It makes it a more volatile environment,” he said.
One person who witnessed the swift rush to Ghomeshi’s side was Justin Beach, who has run a Facebook page called “Friends of the CBC” since 2005. After Ghomeshi posted his statement on Sunday, Beach saw a groundswell of support among his members, including some who asked the page name be changed to “Friends of Jian Ghomeshi.”
“They were echoing a lot of things that were in his statement, that first of all the CBC should have never let him go, that they shouldn’t have let him go unless he was convicted of a crime, that the CBC management had no place in his personal life,” said Beach.
Ghomeshi’s Facebook page had more than 105,000 “likes” as of Wednesday morning. Online petitions defending him have also surfaced, including one that aims to support Ghomeshi and his “privacy rights” that has drawn more than 4,400 signatures.
“He is a very charming and very skilled on-air personality,” said Greg Elmer, director of the Infoscape Centre for the Study of Social Media at Ryerson University, when asked why fans have flocked to Ghomeshi’s side.
“He’s very unique in that sense. There aren’t that many people in the Canadian media sphere who I think resonate as much as Ghomeshi does.”
But social media users rushing to judgment should remember that they are equally as liable for their statements as any newspaper or radio station, said Marko Vesely, who practices commercial litigation at Lawson Lundell LLP in Vancouver.
In fact, even sharing a libellous statement on Twitter could get them in trouble, he said.
“There is not a lower standard or freedom to speak on the Internet free of the burden of defamation law. That comes as a surprise to some people,” said Vesely. “The other legal principle that comes as a surprise is that republishing a libel is the same as committing a libel.”
As for May, she says she wants to offer support to the unnamed women who have accused the radio host. At the same time, she still considers Ghomeshi a friend and offers him her compassion as well.
“It’s a dreadful, tragic story. If all the charges against him are true, it’s a tragic story. There’s no question about it. For somebody who has tumbled so far, I don’t have contempt for someone in those circumstances. I have compassion.”