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