Former TV personality Don Burke has denied any “sleazy sexual stuff”, claiming instead the many allegations against him are revenge for his extramarital affairs, angry outbursts and “ribald humour”.
The gardening guru told A Current Affair on Monday night he had cheated on his wife and bullied staff members – and that he believed he had mild autism that prevented him from reading body language.
Industry gossip about this behaviour had simply “grown in the telling”, fuelled by social media outrage at Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein, he said.
“I accept fault for what I’ve done. I have made some good mistakes and people are punishing me for it, not entirely wrongly,” Burke told host Tracy Grimshaw.
“But the sexual stuff is a way of twisting the knife.”
Burke, 70, has been accused of indecent assault, sexual harassment and bullying by a number of women who worked with him on his famous gardening show in the late 1980s and ’90s.
“I reject I was this Harvey Weinstein figure,” he said, blaming social media for blowing the true stories about his infidelities and off-colour humour out of proportion.
“I’m getting it’s social media, this Twitter-sphere thing,” he said.
“I’m willing to cop that I may have terrified a few people.”
— A Current Affair (@ACurrentAffair9) November 27, 2017
The ABC and Fairfax have published allegations from multiple women who worked for Burke. Among the worst were that Burke groped their breasts without consent – a potential criminal offence that can carry jail time.
One woman said Burke showed her footage of a sex act involving a donkey.
“I have never even seen a donkey bestiality video, and would never try to show someone,” he said. “
The ACA interview was the first time Burke had revealed publicly that he believes he has Aspergers, a mild form of autism, which inhibits his ability to read body language.
“I have never been diagnosed but I worked out that it is that. It is a terrible failing. I can look at a [camera] lens but I have difficulty looking at people in the eye,” he said.
“I missed the body language and the subtle signs that people give you. I don’t see that. I suffer from a terrible problem with that.”
Burke said his series of extramarital affairs were a “devastating time” for both he and his wife, but they had worked through the betrayal and he had become a “different person”.
Grimshaw put it to Burke that a large number of people must be lying for his denials to be true. “Mmmm,” he murmured in reply.
Grimshaw asked why his accusers would invent the story that he bragged about buying a female relative a horse so he could watch her rub her genitals on its back.
“This is what is driving me nuts. You wonder why they go to that extreme,” he replied. “I don’t know why they would say that.”
Burke went on to say the allegations against Hollywood executive Weinstein had triggered a “moment” in history.
“I don’t think it’s a big conspiracy. I just think it’s the moment,” he said.
“This whole Weinstein stuff, what I think it does is reinforce the victim mentality.”
Accusations kept behind closed doors
Meanwhile, a TV insider told The New Daily that Channel Nine kept accusations against Burke private because of his show’s success, and to prevent the renowned TV personality leaving for a rival network.
“Channel Nine in Sydney those days was run by cowboys,” the former Nine employee told The New Daily.
“Young women were constantly made to feel lucky to even have a job.
“A shocking environment when you’re trying to get a foot in the door but a perfect place for predators. Can you imagine mustering the courage to tell your bosses and HR and then nothing was done?
“Evidenced by the recent comments of [David] Leckie and [Sam] Chisholm, of course they knew what was going on, but the show was a ratings juggernaut. They couldn’t afford a scandal or have Burke jump ship to a rival network.
“In hindsight those women should have gone to the police, but they knew their careers would have been ruined.”
Former Nine CEO Sam Chisholm has described Burke as a “grub” and a “disgrace”, while his successor David Leckie said he was a “really dirty old man”.
In the A Current Affair interview, Burke repeatedly admitted to being grumpy, angry, a frequent user of strong language, and to clashing with senior Channel Nine executives.
“I was tough when I had to be tough, especially with the Channel Nine top echelon,” he said.
“I think in part I deserve this, but not for all that sleazy sexual stuff.”
Burke denied his show or Channel Nine ever paid off anyone. “There was nothing that ever happened on our side that was improper or anything.”
Grimshaw told viewers Burke was not paid for the interview.
Scotts Australia – one of Burke’s long-time sponsors – suspended ties with the former TV horticulturist on Monday.
“Based on the recent allegations against Don Burke and Scotts Australia’s strong commitment to inclusion, respect and tolerance in the workplace, we have immediately suspended our relationship with Mr Burke,” a Scotts Australia general manager Andrew Martin told The New Daily.
– with Jackson Stiles