Millionaire celebrity gardener Don Burke, who produced and starred in the hit TV Burke’s Backyard in the 1990s, has denied claims from several former employees that he sexually harassed them, saying they’re ex-employees with a grudge.
Burke was one of the biggest stars on TV during the gardening show’s prime-time 18-year run on the Nine Network before it was cancelled amid plummeting ratings in 2004.
A joint investigation by Fairfax Media and the ABC has detailed numerous allegations from female staff of Burke’s production company, CTC, including sexually inappropriate comments and touching.
In response, Burke says he is “deeply hurt and outraged at the false and defamatory claims” from “a small clique of malcontents”.
“It is evident that these baseless claims concern statements from a few ex-employees of CTC Productions who bear grudges against me,” he said.
“I also believe that this publication is opportunistic and intended to severely damage my reputation, by trying to link my alleged behavior with the appalling behaviour of Harvey Weinstein.”
He denied all the claims.
However, two former Nine CEOs offered less than stellar assessments of their former star, with Sam Chisholm, who ran the station in the 1980s, saying: “Burke was a disgrace because of his behaviour internally and externally.”
David Leckie, who was in CEO in the 1990s, called Burke “a horrible, horrible man”, a “terrible grub” and “a really dirty old man”.
Two of the shows former researchers claim Burke groped their breasts. One of them, Louise Langdon, said he tried to remove her top during a trip to central Australia.
And a woman who Burke encouraged to audition for the show, Wendy Dent, claims she was asked to do it topless, but declined.
A former Burke’s Backyard producer, Bridget Ninness, said her boss “was lewd and he was crude”. She said Burke did not sexually harass her, but she was bullied regularly.
Fairfax Media says it also spoke to former male employees who “confirmed Burke’s obsession with breasts and sex”.
While Nine’s former director for news, Peter Meakin, said he never received any official complaints about Burke, Leckie said there were complaints, but he heard them second-hand.
In a three-page statement from Don Burke, he said he was “a classic sitting duck” because he ran the company as well as starring in it, and was part of hiring and firing.
Burke said his “perfectionist management” was the reason for the show’s success and “excellence was essential”.
“I absolutely dispute the claims of bullying,” he said.
“If even one or two employees in the [Burke’s Backyard] team were below standard, this could lead to the cancelling of the program and the loss of the jobs of about 40 people. This is the nature of prime time TV. So yes, there was pressure on each and every member of the BBY team to perform at a high level.”
Burke said the show was “a lone bastion of anti-misogyny from its inception in 1987” and he “had a lifelong opposition to sexism and misogyny”.
“This was evidenced by me deliberately choosing many women to be regular presenters on this program who were there because they were the very best in their field, truly outstanding women,” he said.
The 70-year-old TV producer said the claims would “inevitably destroy my ability to perform my extensive charity work” and “also destroy my income for the rest of my life”.
“Already these mischievous claims have led to some thousands of dollars of cancellations of appearances,” he said.
He denied each and every claim made in the Fairfax and ABC stories.
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