Veteran television presenter Don Burke, host of Channel Nine’s 17-year-success Burke’s Backyard, is facing allegations of sexual harassment and assault from several former female employees.
A major joint investigation from Fairfax and the ABC, published in Fairfax Media newspapers on Monday morning, has made public a second side to Burke – one allegedly far removed from his wholesome ‘backyard’ persona.
Stories from multiple women allege Burke – long considered one of Australia’s top entertainers and a recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia – used his position of power to sexually harass, assault and intimidate his female employees. In total, more than 50 people have made serious allegations regarding Burke’s behaviour.
Burke, 70, denies any misconduct and, according to Daily Mail, has hired one of the nation’s top defamation lawyers Patrick George from the law firm Kennedys Australia. It’s reported George has acted previously for former politicians, actors, celebrities and authors.
Louise Langdon was 27 when she worked alongside Burke in 1987 – first as a weekend producer for his gardening radio program, then as a researcher at Burke’s Backyard.
She told Fairfax journalist Kate McClymont that Burke offered “persistent commentary about anything sexual”, and recalled one alleged incident in which he showed her a video of a woman having sex with a donkey: “Don was getting so much pleasure from seeing my reaction to it. I was just speechless.”
Langdon, now a psychologist living in the US, alleges Burke frequently tried to remove her clothing and see her underwear.
She also told McClymont about an incident where Burke allegedly “put his foot into my rear end” and told her the firmness of her backside “wasn’t up to scratch”.
The allegations against Burke come in the wake of those against disgraced Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.
Unlike Weinstein, Burke has not been accused of rape. Similar to Weinstein, however, Burke's alleged sexual misconduct was widely known within the industry and left unaddressed because of his position of power.
Multiple former male executives at Channel Nine have confirmed to McClymont that Burke was a vile man who preyed on female employees.
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"[Management told staff] to 'suck it up' because it was the number one rating show, the cash cow for Channel Nine," a long-term male producer on Burke's Backyard told Fairfax and the ABC.
"Lots of women I know just left. There was a huge staff turnover. He had the power, the profile and the tacit backing of Channel Nine."
For 17 years, Burke's Backyard occupied the Friday 7:30–8:30pm time slot on Channel Nine. It delivered the network strong ratings from 1987 until it was axed by Nine in 2004. Burke's production company, CTC (Cut The Crap) Productions, also produced Channel Nine's Backyard Blitz, which ran from 2000 until November 2006.
Former chief executive of the Nine Network David Leckie told Fairfax he isn't surprised about the allegations against Burke.
"I've been trying to think of Harvey Weinstein-type people [in Australia] and the only one I can ever come up with is Burke. He was a horrible, horrible man," he said. Though Leckie confirmed there were complaints made about Burke's behaviour, he said he only ever heard them second-hand.
In 2004, Business Review Weekly listed Burke as one of the country's 'Top 50 Entertainers'. At the time, it was reported he earned an estimated $7.2 million annually.
According to its website, CTC Productions - run by Burke and his wife Marea - has won "12 logies, two People’s Choice Awards, a Pater Radio Award and a Banksia Award for media contribution to the environment".
In 2010, Burke was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to conservation and the environment, as well as to the media. From 2005 until 2008, Burke served as the Chair of the Australian Environment Foundation - a non-for-profit advocacy group that has attracted criticism for its links to climate change skeptics.
The allegations uncovered by Fairfax and the ABC run together in a relentless string that paints Burke an entitled abuser of women.
One former crew member alleges Burke approached a group of schoolgirls on the street, telling them he'd teach them "how to hold their puppy properly" as a guise to "stroke" their breasts.
Another woman, a former producer on Burke's Backyard Bridget Ninness, launched legal action against Burke for "sustained and systemic" psychological abuse in the mid-nineties. The case settled out-of-court in 1997 and Ninness told McClymont: "He is a high-grade, twisted abuser".
Burke has denied the comparisons to Harvey Weinstein, telling Fairfax and the ABC: "I loathe the reported behaviour of Mr Weinstein and hope that the legal system deals with him in such a way as to prevent this happening again."
"The bitter irony is that I have had a life-long opposition to sexism and misogyny," his statement reads. "Burke's Backyard was a lone bastion of anti-misogyny since its inception in 1987."
The Nine Network has also denied any responsibility. In a statement obtained by Mamamia, a Nine spokesperson said: "The current management of Nine cannot comment on how these sorts of matters may have been dealt with in the past, these allegations are serious and would not be tolerated at Nine today. We have had in place for some time now robust policies and procedures for dealing with complaints and to support our staff in such circumstances."
The Network also told Fairfax and the ABC there are no records of complaints against Burke and that: "Burke's Backyard was a production of CTC Productions and they employed and managed all staff."
To read the full Fairfax Media/ABC investigation written by Kate McClymont, click here.
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