Jour­nal­ist Wendy Dent tells how Don Burke 'pres­sured' her to au­di­tion top­less

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Melissa Davey and Amanda Meade

Aus­tralian film-maker and jour­nal­ist Wendy Dent was just 21 in 1996 when Don Burke told her she could au­di­tion for his tele­vi­sion pro­gram, Burke’s Back­yard.

“He said if you want to be on the show you’ll have to au­di­tion for me and you’ll have to be top­less, be­cause you’d be a mer­maid, and mer­maids are top­less,” Dent told Guardian Aus­tralia.

“I just felt it was sleazy and I tried to get off the phone. I was quite in­no­cent and in­ex­pe­ri­enced back then. There wasn’t any ‘Look, I’m jok­ing,’ and he never con­tacted me later to apol­o­gise. It was just so shock­ing; be­ing asked to au­di­tion top­less by a TV star.”

Asked about Dent’s al­le­ga­tions on Chan­nel Nine’s A Cur­rent Af­fair, Burke said it was “just not true. But what I don’t know – in try­ing to re­mem­ber her to­day I spoke to my daugh­ter this morn­ing and she said ‘your sense of hu­mour at times I’ve seen peo­ple roll their eyes a bit’. But I don’t know is the an­swer. She said I could have remotely said some­thing close to that.”

Dent said: “I felt re­ally used. I felt taken ad­van­tage of. He had ma­nip­u­lated me into the sit­u­a­tion, by of­fer­ing to ‘make my ca­reer’. And I felt pres­sured, to do what I would ab­so­lutely never do, but he was pres­sur­ing me all the same. “I felt pow­er­less.”

At the time, Dent was study­ing film and tele­vi­sion at the Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in Syd­ney. She had met Burke one year ear­lier while she was work­ing at a gar­den­ing show in Mel­bourne, where her job was to dress as a fairy and en­ter­tain chil­dren at the event. Burke was also at the show, film­ing an episode of Burke’s Back­yard. His pro­duc­ers de­cided to film Dent in­ter­act­ing with Burke.

Ac­cord­ing to Dent, she asked him to make a wish.

Dent says he told her: “It didn’t work. You’ve still got your clothes on.”

Burke’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment from Guardian Aus­tralia on Mon­day and Tues­day.

On Mon­day Fair­fax Me­dia and the ABC pub­lished al­le­ga­tions from Dent and for­mer staff who worked with Burke on Burke’s Back­yard and who de­scribed be­ing sex­u­ally ha­rassed by him.

In a state­ment is­sued on Mon­day, Burke stren­u­ously de­nied all the al­le­ga­tions and said he was “deeply hurt and out­raged” by the claims. He said they were “base­less” claims of ex-em­ploy­ees with grudges. “I ab­so­lutely dis­pute the claims of bul­ly­ing, and wish to point out that Burke’s Back­yard was a prime-time TV show where ex­cel­lence was es­sen­tial.

“The bit­ter irony is that I have had a life­long op­po­si­tion to sex­ism and misog­yny,” the state­ment said.

On Tues­day Fair­fax re­ported al­le­ga­tions from swim­mer Susie O’Neill that Burke made crude and be­lit­tling re­marks dur­ing a visit to her Brisbane home be­fore the Syd­ney Olym-

pic games. The eight-time Olympic medal win­ner told Fair­fax Me­dia Burke was look­ing at a paint­ing of a flower by her hus­band when he made a sex­ual re­mark about her body. “It was crude and it was be­lit­tling,” O’Neill said.

In his in­ter­view on A Cur­rent Af­fair, Burke said: “There is a lot of peo­ple that don’t like me and they can’t all be wrong. I guess this is the Har­vey We­in­stein thing and we’ve got a witch hunt.

“I’m pre­pared to cop that I might have ter­ri­fied a few peo­ple and that I shouldn’t have done that … To­wards the end of Burke’s Back­yard I must have been a bear with a bloody sore head and I do apol­o­gise for it.

“I have looked in the mir­ror and there’s a lot I don’t like.”

Dr Rose­mary Stan­ton, who filmed nu­tri­tion and prod­uct re­view seg­ments for the Chan­nel Nine show for many years, said Burke was al­ways re­spect­ful to­wards her, though she said he did have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing blunt.

“Peo­ple would ask me ‘how did you ever get along with him?’ They thought he was blunt and im­po­lite, though they never men­tioned any sex­ual things to me.

“Now that’s not to say I don’t be­lieve those who have come for­ward. But I can def­i­nitely say they [the al­leged sex­ual mis­con­duct] didn’t ap­ply to my re­la­tion­ship with Don.”

When Guardian Aus­tralia rang one pro­ducer who worked on the show with Burke, he said he re­ceived calls from jour­nal­ists in­quir­ing about Burke’s be­hav­iour “at least once ev­ery year”. But he said he only ever heard sec­ond­hand re­ports of Burke’s be­hav­iour and had not wit­nessed any­thing in­ap­pro­pri­ate him­self. Other for­mer em­ploy­ees told Guardian Aus­tralia that Burke had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing dif­fi­cult and for mak­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate com­ments, though these com­ments were not nec­es­sar­ily sex­ual in na­ture.

Burke’s hit gar­den­ing show ran on Chan­nel Nine un­til 2004 when it was can­celled by in­com­ing CEO David Gyn­gell.

The show was pro­duced by Burke’s pro­duc­tion com­pany and sold to Nine rather than be­ing pro­duced in-house. Burke’s com­pany had a pro­duc­tion bun­ga­low on the Nine lot on Syd­ney’s north shore.

The hey­day of Burke’s Back­yard was un­der for­mer CEO David Leckie who ran Nine when it was the num­ber one free-to-air net­work.

“It was a win­ning cul­ture at Nine in the 1990s,” a for­mer Nine jour­nal­ist said. “The catch­phrase was ‘losers have meet­ings, win­ners have par­ties’. The operating rule was that you would pro­tect the star at all costs. We used to say ‘don’t spook the tal­ent’. In a sea of al­co­hol, that type of grubby be­hav­iour was not out of place.”

Chan­nel Nine at Wil­loughby fa­mously had an open bar in the board­room and would host staff gath­er­ings on Fri­day nights.

Many in the in­dus­try have re­acted an­grily to com­ments made by se­nior ex­ec­u­tives at Nine that they knew what Burke was up to. Leckie, for­mer CEO Sam Chisholm and for­mer news executive Peter Meakin have ad­mit­ted Burke was a prob­lem.

“I thought it was ap­palling,” a for­mer Nine pro­ducer said. “Be­cause at the end of the day they were the de­ci­sion-mak­ers at the time and they were in a po­si­tion to make change. And what I think it re­ally re­flects is that for many, many years there were no women in man­age­ment roles to say this is un­ac­cept­able be­hav­iour.”

In a state­ment is­sued on Mon­day, Chan­nel Nine de­scribed ha­rass­ment and abuse as “com­pletely un­ac­cept­able”.

“The cur­rent man­age­ment of Nine is sim­ply not in a po­si­tion to com­ment on these spe­cific al­le­ga­tions or on how these sorts of mat­ters may have been dealt with in the past,” a spokes­woman said.

“The al­le­ga­tions are ex­tremely se­ri­ous; the be­hav­iour de­scribed is com­pletely un­ac­cept­able and would not be tol­er­ated at Nine to­day.

“Nine has zero tol­er­ance of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and work­place bul­ly­ing and no em­ployee should be sub­jected to this kind of be­hav­iour. Ev­ery­one is en­ti­tled to come to work con­fi­dent that our work­place is safe, free from ha­rass­ment and un­ac­cept­able be­hav­iour will be dealt with ef­fec­tively.

“Nine has ro­bust poli­cies and pro­ce­dures for deal­ing with com­plaints and to sup­port staff in such cir­cum­stances.”

The operating rule was that you would pro­tect the star at all costs. We used to say ‘don’t spook the tal­ent’

Wendy Dent, who has ac­cused tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter Don Burke of sex­ual ha­rass­ment. Pho­to­graph: Wendy Dent

Don Burke on A Cur­rent Af­fair. ‘I guess this is the Har­vey We­in­stein thing and we’ve got a witch hunt,’ he said. Pho­to­graph: Chan­nel Nine, A Cur­rent Af­fair

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.