Besieged gardening guru Don Burke didn’t waste a second when journalist Tracy Grimshaw arrived for her no-holds-barred A Current Affair interview.
Since the former Burke’s Backyard favourite was first accused of indecent assault, sexual harassment and bullying by a number of women who worked with him in the 1980s and 1990s, more horrifying complaints have emerged.
‘I was shocked by the depth and breadth of the allegations,’ admits Tracy, who was instrumental in exposing the Hey Dad! child sex abuse scandal. ‘When I first read these claims about Don last week, I actually thought: 'My God, whatever was he thinking?'
‘But the number of people I have now discovered who worked with him – and had terrible experiences with him – is mind-blowing. It wasn’t widely or often discussed before last week, but God, the stories being swapped in the ACA office yesterday would curl your hair!
‘The scope of things said and the number of people involved – I know some of them and they are credible sources – is jaw-dropping.’
Burke, now 70 and full-time carer for his sick wife Marea, has denied all allegations. In his ACA interview, he did admit to a series of affairs and conceded he was a tough boss – blaming his bad behaviour on self- diagnosed Asperger’s syndrome.
But that was only one of the surprises in store after the ACA crew drove past the media pack camped outside multi-millionaire Burke’s sprawling property at Kenthurst, in Sydney’s north- west, on Monday last week.
‘Within a couple of minutes of me arriving, Marea told me Don was going to say he’d had affairs,’ recalls Tracy, 57, who broke the news of Mrs Burke’s near-fatal battles with breast cancer and arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in a 2015 exclusive.
I was concerned for her, for her health. I said: 'Please tell me this is not new information for you,' but she told me she was fine, they had sorted it out a long time ago. Don just said he hoped I was going to be fair and I told him: 'I’m always fair!'’
The father-of-two then drew her aside to give her off-the- record information about ‘grudges and behaviours’ he had supposedly encountered from some of his accusers. Tracy reveals that, offered a chance to discuss this on-air, he declined. ‘He said: 'I know what it’s like to have accusations made against you, and I’m not going to do that.'
‘Later, I did say to him during the interview: 'If you have a defence here, Don, now is the time to say it because these people are coming forward.' He said: 'I won’t do it.' Now you can read into that what you like, but he didn’t want to do it. That’s the only thing that was said privately that we didn’t air.’
Having known him professionally for 20-odd years – Tracy says he ‘never crossed the line’ with her, although she had heard rumours – she was shocked by the former ratings titan’s appearance. ‘He was very skinny and grey. I think he’s not in great shape. He’s not at the peak of his power now.
‘Basically, he’s been off-air for the past 13 years, apart from the odd gardening segment, and he won’t be doing ACA again! I think life has a way of taking you down a notch, doesn’t it, and now this has happened.’
Olympic swimmer Susie O’Neill revealed her manager had complained to Channel Nine after Burke made ‘crude and belittling’ comments about her body – using a taboo four-letter word – while filming at her Brisbane home in the lead- up to Sydney 2000.
One woman alleged he forced her to watch a bestiality video at work. Further claims emerged that he had used offensive language to a couple who lost family and friends in the Bali bombing, and made lewd remarks to a Japanese translator in 2003.
Using ACA as his forum, Burke blasted it all as a ‘witch hunt’ sparked by the Harvey Weinstein affair in the US and fuelled by Twitter. Tracy, whose respected TV career started in the rough and tumble of Nine’s Melbourne newsroom in 1981, asked the tough questions.
‘Don didn’t put any restrictions on the interview,’ she says. ‘He’s not a stupid man. He knew we were going to talk about uncomfortable things – I wasn’t there to talk about his garden! But I think he expected the interview would be more sympathetic.
‘He obviously thought he could admit to some things and hose down other things and that could be the way it would work for him. He’d had the heads up for about a month that the ABC/ Fairfax investigation was happening. He’d had time to prepare for it...
‘I think his plan was to get on the front foot by admitting certain bad behaviours with a journalist he trusted, and that was me. But admitting affairs doesn’t make you innocent of sexual harassment bullying, or the foul-mouthed banter people claim they were subjected to.
‘He said Burke’s Backyard was a very robust environment, and he had to win ratings. I have to do that too, but I have never treated people badly. But I guess it’s heady when you start out as a gardener and you’re suddenly running your own TV show, earning an extraordinary amount of money, the fame and recognition. If you have a very unstable ego, that can turn toxic.’
Tracy believes the court of public opinion must and will decide. ‘Don knows what he has done. Whether he chooses to admit what he has done, or the things he’s alleged to have done, he knows. It’s up to other people to form their own view whether or not he’s telling the truth, now he’s put it out there.’
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This article originally appeared on New Idea.