Toronto Star: Office Romance leads to 1 suicide, 1 resignation, 1 “Reassignment” …
Toronto Star Office Romance
The Toronto Star has been called “the best investigative newspaper in Canada.” Since Michael Cooke’s 2009 appointment as editor-in-chief, it has aggressively pursued stories exposing sexism, power imbalances, inappropriate behaviour and harassment at workplaces such as the CBC and in the restaurant industry.
But recent allegations surrounding the suicide of award-winning reporter Raveena Aulakh open the organization up to questions about whether its own practices are adequate and how a company should respond when employees raise allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
In the weeks and months before Aulakh’s death, she emailed numerous colleagues and friends on a near-daily basis, expressing concerns about a workplace environment that she considered toxic. Her relationship with a co-worker – a newsroom leader, although not her direct manager – had ended after she discovered he was having an affair with another senior editor, his boss.
On May 2, Aulakh wrote of her disillusionment with the organization she had once loved. “I used to love that newsroom, it was my refuge. Now I’m scared of coming in – I feel emotionally unsafe.”
After Aulakh died on the weekend of May 27, the Star launched an internal investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death. As a result, the Star announced that two senior managers were no longer working in the newsroom, though investigators found that Aulakh’s immediate supervisor had provided her with “outstanding” support.
But the Financial Post has learned that in the course of the Star’s investigations, Torstar Corp. chairman John Honderich was approached by a source close to Aulakh, who offered e-mails that included important information about her treatment in the workplace.
The source, a former Star staffer, said that Honderich told them the Star was only investigating how relationships in the newsroom affected the work of the employees involved, and so the e-mails were never forwarded. The source said Honderich didn’t tell them the Star was also investigating how Aulakh was supported in the workplace, which they only learned about weeks later in media reports.
These emails – along with many others from past and present employees at the Star – were shared with the Post by people frustrated by the Star’s approach to the investigation.
In her own words, Aulakh alleged that a senior manager was unwilling to report allegations of inappropriate activity in order to protect a colleague. In addition, Aulakh wrote that she was told not to report her concerns about the workplace environment to the Star’s union.
Finally, e-mails provided to the Post, and corroborated by interviews with more than a dozen former and current Toronto Star employees, allege that the editor at the centre of the tragedy – Jon Filson, with whom Aulakh had a five-year relationship – had engaged in inappropriate behaviour with women in the workplace stretching back to the mid-2000s, in addition to behaviour that some staff say constituted bullying and harassment.
During that time, Filson had been promoted through a series of increasingly senior roles in the newsroom, from features editor on the paper’s city desk to deputy city editor to sports editor to leadership of the paper’s $20-million tablet initiative, Star Touch.
I used to love that newsroom, it was my refuge. Now I’m scared of coming in – I feel emotionally unsafe
The current and former staff who chose to speak to the Post requested anonymity: current employees cited fear of retribution from management, while former staffers cited concerns for their careers or reputations in Canada’s small media industry.
In the wake of Aulakh’s death, the Toronto Star’s union filed a grievance in late June, expressing concern that the organization has allowed a “toxic and discriminatory culture” to flourish in its newsroom, and that management had failed to provide a workplace free of harassment and discrimination, contrary to its collective agreement and Ontario law.
Management at the paper first resisted a call for a third-party independent investigation, then offered to pursue an “independent facilitation process review” of the newsroom’s culture, only to put that on hold when it could not come to an agreement with union on its parameters.
In a memo to staff, Honderich and Cooke said the company does not agree with the union’s view that there are problems with newsroom culture. “The union’s assessment is not our view,” they wrote. “But in recent conversations with newsroom staff, we have heard legitimate concerns raised and questions posed.”
In a June piece alluding to the paper’s workplace environment, longtime Star columnist Joe Fiorito wrote: “If we consider it our duty to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted then, in light of recent events, we had better get our own house in order before we do any more afflicting.”
A workplace affair
Raveena Aulakh was an acclaimed reporter who came to international attention for a series of stories written for the Star in 2013, while she worked undercover at a Bangladesh clothing factory to expose unsafe working conditions.
In an article Filson wrote last month for The Walrus, he said that he and Aulakh began a relationship in early 2011. Filson was editor of the Star’s sports section at the time and Aulakh was a city reporter. Both were 37 at the time.
The affair began while he was married, he wrote, and he eventually separated from his wife because he wanted to be with Aulakh.
“The relationship was never stable, always chaotic,” Filson wrote, adding that they broke up and reunited many times.
According to Filson, the relationship began to “unravel completely” in October 2015, when Aulakh discovered he had also been in a relationship with Jane Davenport, then the Star’s managing editor and his boss.
Filson said he last communicated with Aulakh in early May.
In a column after Aulakh’s death, the Star’s public editor Kathy English wrote that the organization had conducted an investigation into “revelations and allegations” Aulakh emailed to several colleagues before she died.
The Star’s vice-president of human resources, Brian Daly, along with Alan Bower, the company’s executive director of labour relations, conducted the paper’s investigations, which Honderich ordered in early June.
On June 15, Daly wrote to staff that he and Bower had looked at two issues: allegations of inappropriate relationships at the paper and another into whether or not Aulakh had been properly supported in the workplace.
As a result of the first investigation, Daly said in a memo to newsroom staff that Filson and Davenport were no longer working in the newsroom. Filson is currently not employed by the Star, while the company said Davenport would move to a role outside the newsroom (though the Star has yet to announce that role).
The Star also determined its policies on workplace relationships and conflicts of interest needed to be “amplified” and that its staff should have better access to HR, according to Daly’s memo. Earlier this month, the Star amended its policy on workplace relationships, saying those engaged in a close personal relationship with a direct or indirect report must declare a conflict of interest.
As a result of the second investigation, Daly wrote in his memo that he and Bower determined that “Raveena’s immediate manager provided outstanding and exceptional levels of support and assistance,” adding that “the company provided all reasonable support and assistance to Raveena.”
However, FP has learned that while Daly and Bower conducted their investigations, a source approached Honderich offering communication received from Aulakh that included information on the role her immediate manager, foreign editor Lynn McAuley, played during her mental health crisis, and on Filson’s past behaviour.
According to the source, a former Star staffer, Honderich said the company was only looking into how the relationships affected the work of those concerned and that this was all that was “germane” to the company. The source says the emails were never sent.
In an email to the Post, Honderich said he received emails written by Aulakh from several sources, but would not address the specific allegation. Of emails he did receive, Honderich said, “I did so willingly and never considered them not germane.”
Asked about whether he omitted the fact that the Star was investigating how Aulakh was supported in the workplace, Honderich again did not address the specific allegation, and wrote back a one-line reply: “The Toronto Star has no business in the bedrooms of employees who are having private, consensual affairs.”
In the emails obtained by the FP, Aulakh outlined several concerns about how her situation was being handled.
She wrote that McAuley told her she would only pursue a complaint against Filson if he did something in the workplace that posed a threat to someone other than Davenport, and if Davenport defended him.
“She said she likes Jane (Davenport) a lot and won’t say anything unless Jon (Filson) makes life miserable for people and Jane still protects him,” Aulakh wrote on May 5.
Additional e-mails raise further concerns. On May 13, Aulakh wrote that McAuley told her “not to say anything to the union” about the relationships between her and Filson and Filson and Davenport.
To bolster her concerns about Filson, Aulakh wrote to her manager on May 13 that she had become aware he had previously been “hitting on” interns: “I’m starting to get appalled that the Star has protected someone who goes around hitting on interns, sleeping with multiple women and impacting their lives,” Aulakh wrote to McAuley.
McAuley’s response: “I’m alarmed he has this pattern… Completely unrelated to your relationship with him and his preying on interns … three managers today asked me in private how he can be stopped.”
As late as May 25, Aulakh indicated to McAuley that she was willing to take her concerns about Filson further: “I’m happy/grateful to go with you if I ever have to talk to [Toronto Star manager of labour relations] David Callum. Whatever you think and say, I will do that.”
According to Aulakh’s emails, McAuley was not the only senior manager aware of her issues at work.
On May 2, she wrote she had been meeting with executive editor Paul Woods and on May 5 wrote that McAuley told her he was aware that her previous sick leave was related to Filson. Woods declined to comment, citing confidentiality matters.
A senior source at Torstar, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also claimed that the company’s investigations determined two union officials were aware of some of Aulakh’s workplace issues — a Unifor spokesperson said the union had no information regarding this allegation.
I’m starting to get appalled that the Star has protected someone who goes around hitting on interns, sleeping with multiple women and impacting their lives
Sources at the Star said McAuley did make extraordinary personal efforts to support Aulakh inside and outside the workplace, checking in on her regularly during her free time when the reporter was on sick leave.
McAuley said she would not “parse, elaborate on or explain” the emails, saying they “represent an extremely small, condensed and, at times, distorted version of my actions to help Raveena.”
“I tried to my core to help Raveena, as did many others, over many months and countless hours,” McAuley said in a statement. “Her death is a tragedy and we continue to mourn her. She was a gifted and brave reporter and a good friend. I always understood that Raveena and I spoke in confidence as her privacy was important to her.”
However, when asked by a colleague if she had sworn McAuley to secrecy about her suicidal feelings and the allegations of inappropriate relationships at the paper on May 13, Aulakh replied by email, “No, I did not swear Lynn (McAuley) to secrecy.”
McAuley said she would not comment on whether any complaints were brought forward on Aulakh’s behalf, citing personnel matters.
‘A power game’
Newsrooms can be difficult places to establish a career. Intense personalities are brought together in a pressure-cooker environment predicated on deadlines and sink-or-swim competitiveness. But the culture at the Star provided a different level of challenge for those steering young would-be journalists in the 2000s.
Liane McLarty, general manager of the Ryerson University student newspaper, The Eyeopener, said the paper was aware of allegations of inappropriate workplace behaviour by Filson since 2008, and often warned women about internships at the Toronto Star.
McLarty, who has worked with students since the 1990s, said The Eyeopener received two complaints before telling women who were given internships at the Star to avoid Filson.
“It was a power game, the workplace is like it’s out of the 1970s,” she said.
McLarty confirmed that she was aware of two of the allegations revealed in emails written by Aulakh, and shared with the FP.
A former Toronto Star intern, named in emails sent by Aulakh, including one to Filson on Toronto Star servers on May 2, told the FP that she was involved in a sexual relationship with Filson while she worked for him. He was married at the time. The woman, who is now an employee of Postmedia, asked not to be named.
“I was a 22-year-old employed through the Star’s internship program, and (Filson) had direct oversight over me and my work. I broke off the relationship while I was still an intern,” she said in an emailed statement.
The woman left the Star when her contract expired in 2007. She never informed management of the alleged affair.
“I felt bullied and trapped in a bad situation and, looking back, lacked the personal experience and professional resources to know how to handle it at the time,” she said.
The woman said she was never contacted by the Star after Aulakh’s death, despite being named in e-mails on the company’s server. “I would have considered it my responsibility to cooperate, if asked,” she said.
Brian Daly and Alan Bower, who conducted the Star’s investigation, did not reply to a request for comment. It is not known if Daly and Bower obtained any of the emails referred to in this story and considered them in their investigation.
Jon Filson did not respond to multiple requests for comment. His brother, Toronto-based lawyer Ryan Filson, said Filson had nothing more to say on the matter. “The circumstances are tragic enough without media accounts that malign him personally for no good purpose based on inaccurate information and innuendo,” Ryan Filson said.
Another woman who interned at the Toronto Star alleges she was bullied by Filson. She also asked not to be named.
It was the most toxic newsroom I’ve ever worked in and eventually led to my decision to leave journalism altogether
The woman said she was routinely made to “feel like crap,” her stories were mocked, she was given “impossible” assignments then laughed at when they didn’t work out. “He seemed to take particular pleasure in seeing me become less and less confident as I desperately tried to succeed,” she said.
The former intern said she felt her options for reporting his behaviour were limited. “I did mention to him that his words were pretty cutting and was told to suck it up or leave,” she said.
The woman said she was discouraged by her colleagues from going to the union. “It was the most toxic newsroom I’ve ever worked in and eventually led to my decision to leave journalism altogether.”
Current and former Star staff members also said allegations of Filson bullying colleagues extends beyond interns.
Former colleagues recalled how Filson treated a beloved reporter, who they say left the paper in 2013 in part because of the workplace environment: “Filson just had it in for him and used to insult him openly,” a former employee said. “It was kind of appalling.”
The reporter declined to comment, though he is mentioned in emails between Aulakh and a former Star staffer, which contain further allegations of bullying directed at one current and two recently departed employees. All three declined to comment for this story.
Still, one intern named in Aulakh’s emails said she did not think Filson’s behaviour towards her constituted harassment. “Frankly, he was a jerk, but I never felt sexually harassed by him,” she said. A second intern declined to comment.
Another former employee said while Filson was tough to work for and had an “abrasive personality,” they never witnessed harassment. “He did push me to get better at chasing and selecting good stories and being persistent about tracking down people and information,” they added.
In the staffer’s view, the problem at the Star was not so much Filson but the general culture at the newspaper. “It goes all the way to the top, including HR. It was a poor place to work. Filson wasn’t perfect, but he was not the worst. It’s unfortunate he’s having to wear this because of the Raveena situation.”
Despite her request for privacy at the time of her death, one friend of Aulakh’s told the FP that she said she wanted issues around inappropriate workplace behaviour and bullying at the Star to be exposed.
Star editor-in-chief Michael Cooke said he was not able to respond to what he called “vague” allegations from anonymous sources. “Your inquiries deal primarily with three individuals. One is deceased. The other two are no longer employed here and can’t be subject to further action or inquiry by the Star,” he said in a statement.
“The Star’s HR department, not newsroom management, conducted an inquiry into matters involving those individuals, and appropriate actions were taken,” he added.
But a current Star employee says morale in the newsroom is at an “all-time low,” and that even the prospect of an independent review, now on hold, doesn’t leave people “overly hopeful.”
Restrictions on what can be discussed in that review, should it go forward, including the fact that the Star said it would focus on the “current” workplace and would not examine the circumstances surrounding Aulakh’s death, are of particular concern, said the staffer.
The stakes facing the organization go much higher than a run-of-the-mill office romance, the source said. “The issue is a toxic work environment in which sex and power … are major pollutants.”
With files from Douglas Quan and Howard Levitt