A CBC Reporter Got a Racialized Colleague Fired After Looking Through His WhatsApp Amid Don Cherry Controversy

Ahmar Khan was fired after CBC made him delete a tweet calling out Don Cherry’s racism and he leaked it to the press. His coworker Austin Grabish went through his private messages and reported them to management.
Manisha Krishnan
Toronto, CA
January 15, 2021, 12:13am
Austin Grabish
Austin Grabish (left) went through his colleague Ahmar Khan's private messages discussing the CBC and reported them to management. Photos via Facebook and Twitter

A white CBC journalist took screenshots of his racialized colleague’s private messages, in some cases cropping them to make them look more egregious, and sent them to management, resulting in his coworker getting fired, according to an arbitration decision of a union grievance that ruled against the Canadian public broadcaster. 

Winnipeg-based CBC News reporter Austin Grabish searched and screenshotted tweets and Whatsapp messages made by his coworker Ahmar Khan, some of which discussed Khan’s concerns about how CBC forced him to delete a tweet criticizing hockey commentator Don Cherry for being racist. Khan had also leaked that CBC management made him delete his tweet to Canadaland. 

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Grabish, who accessed a shared laptop Khan had been using, sent those messages to CBC Manitoba managing editor Melanie Verhaeghe, who also went through Khan’s messages. 

Ultimately, CBC fired Khan for “contacting external outlets about the order to delete the Cherry tweet; making disparaging comments about CBC management and policies to parties outside the CBC; and using a homophobic slur on WhatsApp, where his profile identified him as a CBC employee (his profile picture showed him wearing a CBC jacket),” the decision said. 

The decision found the CBC “acted improperly” and breached Khan’s privacy. 

“The grounds cited by the employer for Mr. Khan’s termination amounted to, at most, a minor indiscretion, and are far overshadowed by the breach of his privacy that enabled the employer to discover those activities,” wrote arbitrator Lorne Slotnick. 

“Many people might find it ironic, even amusing, that a news organization that, as with any other major news outlet, is alerted to significant stories by sources who are granted anonymity, would be surprised and indignant that one of its own employees used the same technique to give a story about the CBC to another news outlet.” 

Does your workplace have an issue with systemic racism? You can contact reporter Manisha Krishnan by email at manisha.krishnan@vice.com or on Twitter @manishakrishnan.

On Thursday evening, Khan told VICE World News he felt “vindicated” after “the actions of others led me to a point where I wanted to take my life.” 

He said he hopes the decision prompts change at the CBC “because that is something that is desperately needed to protect journalists of colour within the organization… and more importantly to tell the stories of Canadians in a truthful way.” 

In a statement to VICE World News, Chuck Thompson, head of public affairs for CBC, defended the actions of Grabish and Verhaeghe. 

“Irrespective of where anyone stands on the arbitrator’s decision, the actions we took against Mr. Khan were not related to his tweet regarding Don Cherry. As was noted in the ruling, our actions were not considered discriminatory and there was no breach of Human Rights law. While we can’t go into specific details, context is important. Without having all the facts, people are unfairly characterizing Mr. Khan's two colleagues on social media. They acted appropriately and professionally bringing information to the attention of senior management,” he said. 

Grabish told VICE World News he disputes several of Slotnick’s findings, including that he altered some of the screenshots and took the laptop from Khan’s desk. 

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He said he opened the laptop to find a “thread of misinformation about the CBC and several homophobic messages including a photo of two men with the words ‘JUST A COUPLA FAGS.’” 

According to the arbitration decision, the messages said “fAWKING FAGGG YO” and “WHAT A FAG YOOOOo,” and were from a conversation in October 2018—more than a year earlier. Grabish did not comment when asked what he meant by “misinformation about the CBC” or elaborate on his claim that a 13-month old message happened to be open on the laptop. 

Grabish said he was “disappointed and hurt” by the messages, which is why he reported it. 

“As a gay man, I know what it’s like to be marginalized and grew up repeatedly being the subject of regular homophobic slurs and bullying because of my sexual orientation,” he said. 

“I value freedom of expression and appreciate the need for journalists to hold institutions accountable. Having said that, I had very clear professional obligations under CBC’s code of conduct,” he said, alleging that he “could have been disciplined for not bringing that information forward.” 

Asked if he regrets using the slur, Khan said, “I don't condone it, I don't use it personally, I was trying to make a point to a friend that it was inappropriate to use it. In a snapshot it looks bad but it isn't the whole picture.”

Verhaeghe did not respond to VICE World News’ request for comment.

In November 2019, Cherry, the star of Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada, implied that immigrants don’t buy poppies. 

“You people that come here … whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy,” he said; he was later fired by Sportsnet for the rant. 

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In response to the controversy, Khan, who was 23 and a temporary employee at the time, tweeted “It it (sic) long due time for Don Cherry’s Coach’s Corner to be cancelled. His xenophobic comments being aired weekly are deplorable. You know why black and brown kids don’t enjoy hockey?  Because of the deep-rooted racism, which we get to hear EVERY SINGLE WEEK on national TV.” 

According to the decision, several CBC employees flagged the tweet to Verhaeghe and he was forced to take it down for violating the outlet’s Journalistic Standards and Practices, which forbids CBC employees from expressing opinions on causes or “controversial subjects.” 

Khan felt he should be allowed to call out racism and that the rule was being unfairly applied to him. (Grabish has tweeted about volunteering with an LGBT organization he said did “important work.”) 

According to the decision, Paul Hambleton, who is in charge of CBC’s journalistic standards policy, said if Khan “wants to be an activist he should step down. Everyone hears what they want to hear from Don Cherry.” Assignment producer Jillian Taylor told Khan “you have shown the audience your bias.” 

Khan told Canadaland he’d been told to take down the tweet; Canadaland published a story on it on November 14, 2019. The Toronto Sun also published a story including Khan’s tweet before it got deleted, which resulted in him being harassed online. 

Two weeks later, after Khan said he left a shared laptop on his desk, Grabish took screenshots of several Twitter DMs and Whatsapp messages Khan had sent, including: the message to a Canadaland reporter; messages to his friends complaining about the CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices; the message from before Khan started working at CBC including the homophobic slur; and a message that Slotnick said Grabish cropped to make it sound like Khan was talking about Verhaeghe’s appearance—he was not. Grabish also cropped the date out of the message containing the slur to obscure the fact that it was sent before Khan started working at CBC, Slotnick said. 

One of Khan’s messages said, “Don’t preach diversity and tell and hold other organizations to account when you systematically fail your minorities.”

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“Even though the laptop is shared, (Khan’s) failure to log out is not an invitation to inspect his private messages, even those that show up immediately on the screen, let alone those that may be revealed only by a search,” Slotnick said. “Instead, his colleague Mr. Grabish… not only did not log off, but conducted a search of Mr. Khan’s messages, taking screenshots – in some cases, as set out above, in such a way as to distort the timing or meaning of the messages – and forwarding them to their manager, Ms. Verhaeghe.” 

The CBC argued Khan “violated his duty of fidelity by placing his own feelings and interests ahead of those of his employer, and in the process harmed the employer’s reputation.” 

In his termination letter, the CBC also cited a private message Khan sent referring to his managers as “assholes.” 

“While violating an employer policy may be grounds for discipline, expressing disagreement with a policy is not,” Slotnick said. “I fail to see any basis for discipline in this message, and I agree with the union that if employees could lose their jobs for privately criticizing their bosses – even if in crude terms – this country would be facing a severe labour shortage.” 

Slotnick also said a message exchange between Grabish and Verhaeghe “suggest a somewhat enthusiastic plan to cause trouble for an employee who was viewed by some fellow employees as a problem.” Verhaeghe told Grabish she never referred to Khan’s work as “award” worthy, to which Grabish replied, “hahaha he is clearly a pathological liar.” 

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The decision comes at a time when the media industry is facing a larger public reckoning over its treatment of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour employees. 

Last August, in the Walrus, former CBC producer Pacinthe Mattar detailed the hurdles she faced at the organization because she was accused of not being objective on stories involving race. A report from Algonquin and Pikwàkanagàn journalist Karyn Pugliese published last month detailed allegations of harassment faced by Indigenous CBC journalists, including overhearing their colleagues  describe Indigenous peoples as “alcoholics, drunks, or drug addicts.” 

The CBC has said it is reviewing its journalistic standards “through a more inclusive lens.” However, the CBC’s position on that review, noted by Slotnick, was “it is a review only, and the core values of impartiality and objectivity will not change.” 

After George Floyd was killed by police, Catherine Tait, president and CEO of CBC, sent out a memo to staff that said “when we see injustice, we feel compelled to speak out. But we do so with our most powerful instrument: great journalism.” The statement did not mention Black people. A few weeks later, the broadcaster put out a public statement saying it is “committed to combating racism in all its forms.” 

Thompson declined to comment on the CBC’s policies on whistleblowers; whether or not employees of colour who speak out can expect to be fired; whether it has concerns about having a reporter on staff who breached the privacy of a colleague and altered messages; how other BIPOC CBC employees should feel in light of the exchange between a Verhaeghe and Grabish mocking Khan before he was fired; whether or not the review of the journalistic standards and practices will carry any weight; if it believes employees’ private messages complaining about the CBC is a firing offence. 

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The decision noted that Khan’s dismissal had a “significant negative impact on his career and ability to secure another job in his field.” 

The decision said Khan is entitled to be reinstated as a reporter with no discipline on his record for at least four months or four months of compensation. He’s also entitled to damages for the breach of privacy. 

Khan said he is waiting to see how the CBC will proceed in light of the decision. 

In a statement, the Canadian Media Guild, the union representing CBC employees, said it was “extremely pleased” with the decision. 

“In trying to settle this grievance, it must be noted CMG has always focused on how management treated Khan, and how it dealt with a situation of a racialized temporary employee. Management failed to respect Khan’s reasonable expectation of privacy which is a clear violation under our collective agreement.” 

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