Allegations that TV icon Don Burke sexually harassed and indecently assaulted a string of female employees during the heyday of 'Burke's Backyard' has shocked many in the Australian media industry. Now questions are being raised about what Channel Nine executives knew -- and why no action was taken over repeated claims of sexual misconduct and bullying.
More than 50 people were interviewed for the joint ABC/Fairfax Media investigation published Monday, which includes allegations of groping, lewd language, psychological bullying and relentless talk of sex by female employees -- accusations Burke has strenuously denied.
Louise Langdon, a former researcher and producer for Burke at 2UE and later for 'Burke's Backyard', told the ABC and Fairfax that working for Burke was "an endurance test in terms of his persistence in commentary about anything sexual".
She describes being left "speechless" after Burke showed her an explicit video of a woman having sex with a donkey. She says Burke frequently indecently assaulted her while at work -- flicking her bra straps, lifting her shirt to check the colour of her underwear and on one occasion attempting to remove her top.
Another former employee, Bridget Ninness, worked for Burke as a producer for seven years in the 1990s and described him as "a high-grade, twisted abuser" who treated women as "playthings".
Ninness ended up settling out of court for "sustained and systemic psychological abuse" in the workplace after her complaints to Nine Network executives about Burke's conduct fell on deaf ears, Fairfax Reports.
Burke has denied all of the claims levelled against him in a lengthy statement sent to the ABC and Fairfax:
One of the key investigative journalists behind the disturbing claims says she expects many more women will now come forward with allegations of abuse by the celebrity gardener.
Speaking to radio station 3AW on Monday morning, Fairfax investigative journalist Kate McClymont said "already (more) people have been contacting me".
Now questions are being raised over who at Channel Nine knew of the allegations of abuse and why no action was taken against the TV personality during more than two decades working for the station.
Among the most damning of the allegations made against Burke come from two of the network's former chief executives.
The story about Australia's gardening host Don Burke being an (alleged) Weinstein-like pest is shocking. Not least because it has two TV network CEOs dishing on him ON THE RECORD. Both were his bosses. https://t.co/vbfpY3eRIl— Mark Di Stefano 🤙🏻 (@MarkDiStef) November 26, 2017
In an astonishing acknowledgement, the managing director and CEO of the Nine Network during the 1990s David Leckie described Burke as a "a dreadful, dreadful piece of work" and a "really dirty old man".
"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 told ABC/Fairfax.
Burke has not, like Weinsten, been accused of rape.
Leckie's predecessor Sam Chisholm described Burke as a "grub" and a "disgrace".
"Don Burke was a disgrace because of his behaviour internally and externally," he said.
Yet three decades on, Don Burke continues to make public appearances on Nine programs including the Today show and A Current Affair.
One of Burke's alleged victims, Ninness told ABC/Fairfax her complaints to the network's producers fell on deaf ears.
A young reporter on her first overseas trip for the program, Ninness claims Burke threatened her that if anything went wrong, he would "rip your f---ing head off and s*** down your throat".
But when she complained to Nine's then-head of news and current affairs Peter Meakin, she alleges he said she needed to have "broad shoulders".
Why. Didn't. The. Channel. Nine. Executives. Do. Anything. About. Don. Burke? They. Knew. For. Over. 20. Years.— Catherine Deveny (@CatherineDeveny) November 26, 2017
Meakin denies this, telling ABC/Fairfax that while Burke was "incredibly demanding" as a boss, he "never received any official complaints, written or verbal, that I can recall about his conduct".
Years later, Ninness says she took her complaints to Nine boss David Leckie, who warned her against taking legal action, saying "we don't want to have to crush you" -- something Leckie has denied.
While acknowledging complaints were made about Burke during his time at Nine, Leckie insists he only heard them second-hand.
Chief executive of Nine during the 1980s, Chisholm says people "probably" complained to him about Burke's behaviour but he couldn't remember specifics.
"Probably they did, but I don't know. It's a long time ago," he said.
Investigative journalist McClymont told 3AW that many of those she interviewed believed senior Nine staff knew about Burke's alleged abuse.
"One senior reporter said 'Every single person in management has known about Don Burke. Every male manager knew.' but he was allowed to get away with it because 'Burke's Backyard' was a ratings juggernaut," she told the radio station.
"I think that's what upsets a lot of the women -- they complained about Burke's predatory behaviour and were told to just suck it up, get on with it."
During its peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, 'Burke's Backyard' drew in 1.6 million viewers a week, before being unceremoniously withdrawn from air in 2004 following a ratings dive.
Others in the media industry have come forward claiming they heard of Don Burke's "predatory" behaviour decades ago.
I worked at Nine for years. I never met Don Burke. I knew of his reputation as a predator, abuser and misogynist before I had kids. My eldest son is about to turn 20. https://t.co/aTDu8G0UCv— Catherine Deveny (@CatherineDeveny) November 26, 2017
Watching ppl come out of the woodwork and say they knew about Don Burke, their work unit knew about Don Burke, that their managers knew about Don Burke, at multiple different workplaces— Asher Wolf (@Asher_Wolf) November 26, 2017
Don Burke, who has denied all of the claims levelled against him by ABC and Fairfax, has reportedly called in a leading defamation lawyer who specialises in "reputational risk".