TORONTO — Ontario TV anchor Steve Paikin is one of the few high-profile men to publicly fight back against sexual harassment allegations, but at least one crisis management expert says the political pundit could be even more aggressive in the battle to reclaim his reputation.
Damage control specialist Randi Rahamim says Paikin did “exactly what he needs to do” by defending himself in a lengthy Facebook post in which he dismissed the claim as “complete fiction.”
But if he’s innocent, Rahamim says there’s more the veteran journalist can do to change the headlines.
“He’s one step below what he needs to do — which is if you really believe that someone’s defaming you, or threatening you inappropriately, you’re going to take legal action,” says Rahamim, a principal at the public affairs firm Navigator.
“I would recommend that he bundle that together and be more aggressive in his response.”
The host of TVO’s flagship current events program “The Agenda” broke his silence Tuesday with an online statement in which he deemed “100 per cent false” an allegation that he propositioned a woman for sex in exchange for airtime.
Paikin and the provincially funded broadcaster have said the claims were mounted by former Toronto mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson, who Paikin said he has known professionally for more than a decade.
In a strongly worded post dubbed “My Turn,” the veteran journalist stopped short of announcing legal action while naming his accuser: “You’ve defamed me Sarah. I have no idea why, but you have. And I simply can’t allow that to stand.”
Thomson outlined her allegations on the website Women’s Post on Friday, alleging that an unnamed political talk show host “asked me if I would sleep with him” after attending a lunch at a Toronto restaurant in 2010. She said her assistant witnessed the meeting.
Thomson has not responded to requests for comment from The Canadian Press.
TVO has said an independent third party is investigating the claims and that in the meantime, Paikin will continue to host “The Agenda.”
In suggesting legal action, Rahamim says the best public relations strategy is “to not perpetuate the narrative.”
“Legal action wouldn’t necessarily have to be so valuable in the court of law, rather in the court of public opinion,” she says. “Because honestly, let’s face it, this #MeToo movement is being tried in the court of public opinion.”
Former Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown also responded to accusations of sexual impropriety Tuesday, 12 days after resigning over allegations involving two 18-year-old women when he was an MP.
While applauding the #MeToo movement, he said: “False allegations however undermine that good work.”
But in this case, Rahamim says the approach could backfire.
“It actually causes more problems for the party,” says Rahamim, noting it comes amid a race to pick a new party leader for the June 7 provincial election.
“The fact that he’s defending himself now doesn’t allow them to start talking about new leadership, new issues. Each candidate is going to continually be asked about the issue, about the party’s response to anything that he does.”
Andrea Lekushoff, president of Broad Reach Communications, notes every situation should be treated uniquely but she considers the Paikin statement part of a “tide change.”
“People who believe they’re innocent are moving very quickly to get their version of the truth or the story out there and they’re not waiting for the media to shape the story for them,” says Lekushoff.
As a wave of accusations have toppled powerful figures in Hollywood, media and politics, few have said much to fight the claims or raise qualms about swift public condemnations.
Notable exceptions have included Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis, who is suing a woman who claims he raped her, and U.S. TV personality Ryan Seacrest, who recently penned an essay in the Hollywood Reporter urging for the presumption of innocence after he was cleared of a sexual harassment charge.
Typically, criminal and civil defendants are counselled to not say anything to avoid the chance it would hurt their case, notes Trevor Farrow, a law professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.
“Now that the court of public opinion really engages everyone through the power of the internet, through YouTube, through Facebook, through Twitter, we’re starting to see people wanting to get their story out,” says Farrow.
“It’s a natural human response to want to set the record straight. Whether or not it’s a sound legal strategy depends on the case.”
Farrow fears the trend will shift what has been a powerful discussion about sexual harassment, abuse and systemic discrimination in an ugly direction. While Brown and Paikin both lauded the #MeToo movement, reaction to their stories has been heated.
“We’re starting to see some unhealthy debates which are either: You’re on the side of #MeToo or you’re not, and I think that’s the wrong way to set up this discussion,” he says.
“It needs to be way more nuanced, there are way more important values at stake here than an either/or discussion.”
Still, Rahamim was encouraged by what she considers a deeper debate that is more willing to consider due process.
“I wonder if the pendulum is starting to swing the other way wherein we’re actually doing more harm than good with some elements of the movement,” she says.
“What’s not ideal is when innocent people — men or women — are being dragged through the mud unnecessarily.”
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press