A major Fairfax/ABC investigation can reveal that behind the scenes those who worked with Don Burke claim he was a "psychotic bully," a "misogynist" and a "sexual predator" who indecently assaulted, sexually harassed and bullied a string of female employees.
For almost two decades Don Burke was one of the most powerful men in Australia's entertainment industry. His popular gardening program Burke's Backyard was a ratings juggernaut for the Nine Network until it was unceremoniously axed in 2004.
But now a major Fairfax Media/ABC investigation can reveal that behind the scenes those who worked with Burke claim he was a "psychotic bully", a "misogynist" and a "sexual predator" who indecently assaulted, sexually harassed and bullied a string of female employees.
"He was a vile, vile human being," said Bridget Ninness, a former producer on Burke's Backyard, who later launched legal action against Burke for psychological abuse. "He was lewd and he was crude" and his constant talk of sex was "designed to confront you and to demean you", she said.
Louise Langdon, a former researcher, was subjected to ongoing harassment by Burke which included trying to remove her top, and on another occasion Burke "put his foot into my rear end, with the view to checking the tone of my ... my backside". He then stated that the firmness of her "backside" wasn't "up to scratch".
"I loathed him, he was just a pig. He was lecherous and sinister," said another former researcher who alleges she was indecently assaulted by Burke.
Even David Leckie, the former chief executive of the Nine Network, said he wasn't surprised to receive our call about 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.
Unlike Weinstein, Burke is not accused of rape, but the more than 50 people interviewed during this investigation have made serious allegations about Burke's actions.
"Don Burke was a disgrace because of his behaviour internally and externally," said Sam Chisholm, Leckie's predecessor at Nine.
Chisholm, a stalwart of the industry, also described Burke as "terrible grub". Asked if he felt the network had done enough to rein in Burke's behaviour, Chisholm said he didn't know.
Did anyone ever come to him personally about Burke? "Probably they did, but I don't know. It's a long time ago," he said.
"I think the public that have loved him should know the real Don Burke," said another former highly placed Nine executive. "If Harvey Weinstein's been outed, Don needs to be outed."
However, in a written response, Burke angrily denied comparisons to Weinstein. "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.
Suddenly he made this move and grabbed me, grabbed me hard on the breast. This was not a clumsy, oafish move. It was a calculated action. That is what was scaryA former researcher
"The bitter irony is that I have had a life-long opposition to sexism and misogyny. Burke's Backyard was a lone bastion of anti-misogyny since its inception in 1987," said Burke.
"He is a high-grade, twisted abuser," said Ms Ninness, who eventually settled out of court with Burke's company over "sustained and systemic psychological abuse" in the workplace.
Burke was "two people", explained a former male crew member. There was the genial gardening guru on camera who was "very, very good at what he did". But off camera the real Burke was described by many of those interviewed as a psychopathic narcissist.
"He was an absolute sexual predator. He was a bully. He was horrible to people in the office. He would often have women in tears. He used to take great delight in it. It was like sport to him," said the former male crew member.
When journalist Tracey Spicer announced that she was investigating the behaviour of powerful Australian men in the media in the wake of America's now infamous sex scandal involving film mogul Harvey Weinstein, she was inundated with reports. One name kept recurring - Don Burke.
Among those who came forward was Ms Langdon, now a psychologist who lives in the United States. In 1987 Ms Langdon, then 27, was working as broadcaster Alan Jones' personal assistant when she landed a job as a weekend producer for Burke's gardening program on radio 2UE. She later became a researcher at Burke's Backyard.
"I was told before I went to meet Don that he was sleazy and to be careful," she said. "I was quite shocked about that because the only Don Burke that I knew was the affable Friday night Burke's Backyard gardener.
"So I thought, 'Oh well, how bad can it be?"'
As it turned out, nothing could have prepared Ms Langdon for what was to come.
"Dealing with Don Burke was an endurance test in terms of his persistence in commentary about anything sexual," she said.
On one occasion, while the pair was working at the radio station, Burke insisted she watch a video. To her horror it was a video showing a woman having sex with a donkey.
Ms Langdon was upset and disgusted. "Don was getting so much pleasure from seeing my reaction to it ... I was just, just ... speechless," she said. "I was really overcome."
Burke also subjected Ms Langdon to harassing behaviour - flicking her bra straps and lifting up her shirt to see the colour of her underwear. During a work trip in the Northern Territory he allegedly tried to remove her top.
"I was sitting next to Don on the bus and he decided that it was OK for him to put his hands on my T-shirt and try and pull my bra strap, my bra off and try to somehow remove my clothing. He was trying to take my top off," Ms Langdon said.
Another researcher, who asked not to be named, also recalled being warned about working for Burke. Her job interview was at night at Burke's home, which is on acreage at Kenthurst, a semi-rural suburb in Sydney's Hills district.
The taxi driver expressed concern because he had heard things about Burke and insisted on waiting for her.
During the interview Burke said, "Our nickname for the receptionist is 'the fat c---', so make sure you call her that".
"I think he was testing me to see whether I would be shocked," the woman recalled.
At the time the woman, who was in her late 20s, thought the interview was being held at night because Burke was very busy. But she later came to realise "it was all about power and control ... It was in his own environment so he could control it. It puts you at that disadvantage."
About a month after she started work as a researcher, the woman was having a cigarette on the rooftop garden at the Crows Nest office of Burke's production company, CTC (Cut The Crap) Productions.
The researcher said Burke had been telling her about a cocktail party he was going to that evening. "'You know what I love about cocktail parties?' he mused. 'It's the name tags. I get to grab women's tits while pretending I can't read their name."'
Burke was already standing uncomfortably close to her during the conversation when "suddenly he made this move and grabbed me, grabbed me hard on the breast. This was not a clumsy, oafish move. It was a calculated action. That is what was scary. It was premeditated. I jumped back. He sneered. 'You've got small tits, no one would want to touch your tits'."
"The rooftop incident never occurred," said Burke, who also denied all of Ms Langdon's allegations.
In his written response, Burke denied "absolutely" claims he was bully. Because he was a "perfectionist" and demanded excellence in his production company, "a small number" of former employees were dismissed either for underperformance or misbehaviour. Some of these people "still bear a strong grudge against me", he said.
Wendy Dent was employed as an entertainer when she met Burke at the Melbourne Garden Show in 1995. Burke came over, kneeled before the 21-year-old who was wearing a fairy costume, and asked to be granted a wish. In front of the crew and onlookers, Burke opened his eyes and said, "It didn't work. You've still got your clothes on."
When Burke encouraged her to come to Sydney to audition for his gardening show, Ms Dent recalled a crew member taking her aside to apologise for Burke's "sleazy comment" and also warning her to be careful of him.
Months later, when she had moved to Sydney, Ms Dent took up Burke's offer to audition for the show. Over the phone Burke was flattering, telling Ms Dent she had "real charisma" and great potential. "You definitely have got what it takes for TV," he told her and, what's more, he was "the No. 1 in the business" and he could make it happen.
He said "well, you'll have to audition, but you'll have to be topless".
As a result, she decided she wanted no part of this "sleazy slummy industry".
"These men become dream killers and I lost a career," she said.
Male crew members spoken to by the joint Fairfax Media/ABC investigation confirmed Burke's obsession with breasts and sex.
One former crew member recalled Burke spotting a group of schoolgirls, aged around 14, holding a puppy.
"He stopped and chatted to them and said, 'Do you want me to show you how to hold the puppy properly?"'
Because it was the legendary Don Burke, one of the girls said, "Yeah, that'd be great."
"He showed them how to nurse it close to their chest, keep it nice and warm," the crew member recalled. "When they walked away he exclaimed: 'Give me three!'
"I said, 'three what?' He boasted that he had stroked her nipple three times while showing her how to hold the puppy," said the crew member.
Other crew members talked about Burke's voracious sexual appetite while on the road. The lure of Burke being a national prime-time celebrity meant women of all shapes, sizes and ages were happy to go off with him. "It was pretty much anything with a pulse," said one of his crew.
There were occasions when Burke's behaviour with women worried the crew. The most notorious occasion was referred to by several people as the "Newcastle incident", which involved a young woman who had joined Burke and the crew for drinks after filming that day in Newcastle. As the other crew members retired to bed, Burke was seen leading the unenthusiastic, protesting woman towards the lift.
No one knew what occurred behind Burke's closed door on this occasion or on other occasions but his constant bragging about his exploits the following morning made his crew cringe.
"Don would always come back the next morning and say, 'Oh my God, it was fantastic ... once she got up there it was on for young and old'," said one former crew member.
Another former Nine producer recalled a troubling incident involving Burke. The network had organised the season launch on a boat to celebrate the start of the 1989 season. One of those aboard was an 18-year-old woman who was about to launch her career on a new Nine program.
The young woman had too much to drink so the producer, one of the few who had not been drinking, was asked by a publicity head to escort the woman back to her hotel.
With the assistance of Mike Willesee's driver, he got the woman to the foyer of her hotel only to find that she'd lost her room key. After getting another one from reception, they arrived to find the door to her room slightly ajar. "Sitting in the shadows - in the darkened room, with no lights - was the hunched-over figure of Don Burke," said the producer. "I said, 'What the f--- are you doing here'?"
"Don tried telling me that she'd given him her room key while on the boat so he could teach her 'presentation skills' back in the room," said the producer. After arguing with the network's star for an hour, the producer finally got him to leave the hotel room.
"This was predatory behaviour ... Any normal person would have left straight away, but Don was determined to stay there and do God-knows-what to this girl," he said.
The following day the producer informed executives and the publicity department of Burke's behaviour but no action was taken. When he got back to his desk there were two messages. One was from the young woman thanking him for looking after her.
The other was from Burke. It read: "Thanks very much for saving my bacon last night, mate."
"I remember going, 'You f---er, you f---er!' I'd never come across anything like it and I had done television for years."
Burke denied that the incident occurred.
Despite numerous complaints to Nine executives, both male and female employees were told to soldier on. "There was an institutionalised acceptance of his behaviour and it was actually not just an acceptance, it was an institutionalised enabling," said researcher Louise Langdon.
Leckie confirms that there were complaints made about Burke but suggested he heard them second-hand. "I am not going to mention any specific girls or anything like that," he said.
For one young television writer, the comments Burke made about a young female relative were the last straw. It was the late 1980s and the reporter was 21 when she first went off to interview one of Nine's biggest stars.
Burke continually interrupted the interview with lewd comments such as "I bet you're a demon f--k". The next year she was reluctant to interview him again, "but he was a very, very big star back there and I think that's what people need to take into account".
The second year Burke not only invaded her personal space but made suggestions as to what sexual positions she might enjoy. He also openly stared at and commented about her breasts. It was as though his body language was "I am staring at your boobs and I don't care if you notice, that's what I'm going to do", she said.
Her innocuous question about garden gnomes led to a vulgar comment from Burke about the size of his "cock". Her third encounter with Burke, an interview at his Kenthurst home, was her last.
When Burke said he had bought a horse for a young relative "because I love watching her rub her c--t on its back," the reporter snapped the tape off.
"I was absolutely and utterly repulsed by the man, I felt compromised, I felt violated, I just felt disgusted.
"I took the tape recording to the head of publicity at the time and said I want action. And the next day I received a bunch of flowers and that was the end of it."
There was no apology from Burke and no action was taken against Burke, who told Fairfax Media and the ABC that the story was a "total fabrication".
In 2004 Burke was unceremoniously dumped by the Nine Network after more than 17 years hosting Burke's Backyard.
Over those years countless employees allegedly suffered from Burke's bullying, lewd behaviour and sexual harassment. The network's failure to do anything to rein in Burke's behaviour leaves a bitter taste for many. "Every single person in management ... has known about Don Burke. Every male manager. There is not one that does not know," said a former Nine staffer.
Even the male managers found his incredible ego and narcissistic behaviour impossible to deal with, said the staffer.
"But in terms of the sexual harassment stuff, they didn't really give a damn. He was too popular, he was just too popular a celebrity," said one former senior employee at the network.
Another long-term male producer on Burke's Backyard said that management told staff "to suck it up because it was the No. 1 rating show, the cash cow for Channel Nine".
"Lots of women I know just left. There was a huge staff turnover," he said. "He had the power, the profile and the tacit backing of Channel Nine."
However, the Nine Network refused to accept any responsibility for Burke's behaviour. Questioned about claims that the network turned a blind eye to complaints and failed to take any action to protect their staff from Burke, Nine issued a statement saying: "Burke's Backyard was a production of CTC Productions and they employed and managed all staff."
However, some of Burke's worst behaviour allegedly occurred while the program was produced at Nine. In late 1991 Burke took over the production of his popular gardening program.
Nine also said they could find no records of complaints or payouts to any women in relation to Burke's behaviour.
One woman who did complain paid a very high price.
"He got off on terrorising [female researchers]. Women were his playthings and he loved seeing them shocked by his behaviour and language," said producer Bridget Ninness, who worked at Burke's Backyard for more than seven years from 1990.
On her first overseas trip as a reporter, Burke turned to her and said that if everything did not go smoothly, "I'm going to rip your f---ing head off and shit down your throat".
Ms Ninness was so nervous and upset she vomited. When she complained to the head of news and current affairs Peter Meakin, she alleges he said she needed to have "broad shoulders".
Years later her colleagues at Burke's Backyard encouraged her to take legal action against Burke for the stress and psychological abuse she suffered at his hands. But when she did, Ms Ninness found herself totally alone.
She said David Leckie warned her against the legal action, saying: "We don't want to have to crush you." This was denied by Leckie who said "honestly that is not my speech". He was adamant that the complaints he heard about Burke's behaviour were second-hand.
Similarly Meakin did not recall Ms Ninness's complaint. "I never received any official complaints, written or verbal, that I can recall about his conduct.
"There was gossip about inappropriate language and he was incredibly demanding. If someone fell short of the mark, he would excoriate them," said Meakin, who is now at Channel Ten.
"There was absolutely no care whatsoever for the consequences - the psychological damage, the physical damage," said Ms Ninness. She still suffers post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Twenty years later we are saying actually our lives do matter, our mental health does matter," she said.
"This is unfair and unworthy journalism" from a "small clique of malcontents" who were fired, said Burke.
He enclosed an email from former reporter Jackie French, now a children's author, saying that in the decade she worked closely with Burke she never saw "any hint of sexual harassment, nor heard any gossip".
Michael Freedman, Burke's former CEO, said: "I never observed any sexual harassment. Don's not the kind of person to engage in that type of behaviour."
According to Tracey Spicer, this is a seminal moment for women both in the workplace and society.
Spicer said a generation of women had been lost to the media and entertainment industry "because they were simply sick of being groped and grabbed" while trying to do their job.
"We've put up with sexual harassment and indecent assault for so long and finally we're able to say, 'Enough is enough, let's change the structures within the workplace so women can feel safe'," she said.
Additional reporting by Michael Evans, Lorna Knowles and Alison Branley
The ABC's 7.30 on Monday will be broadcasting interviews with Burke's accusers.
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This story first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald