Susie O'Neill on Don Burke: "It was crude and it was belittling"

In the wake of the explosive revelations about the behaviour of Don Burke, Fairfax Media has been inundated with emails and calls from members of the public, former employees and other media figures making further allegations against the former top-rating presenter.

Olympic swimmer Susie O'Neill said she was alone in her Brisbane house when Burke and two male crew members came to film her in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Usually high-profile sports people have a minder, but this was the genial gardener from Burke's Backyard. O"Neill thought, "how dangerous could that be?"

But as she stood in front of one of her favourite artworks, a painting of a flower done by her husband, Burke remarked, "Is your c--- as big as that?"

O'Neill was flabbergasted. "It was crude and it was belittling," she said.

Nick Cummins, her manager at the time, told Fairfax Media he was horrified when he received O'Neill's call to tell him what had happened with Burke. "She was intimidated by the crude sexual innuendo," he recalled.

Former crew members contacted during an extensive Fairfax Media/ABC investigation confirmed O'Neill's account of Burke's behaviour.

Mr Cummins, now CEO of Cricket Tasmania, said he immediately contacted both Channel Nine's management and Burke himself.

"Burke was so convincing in his denials," Mr Cummins recalled.

When he read Fairfax Media's account of women making accusations against Burke, Mr Cummins wanted to point out that it was not just "disgruntled" former Burke employees with an axe to grind.

"It has stayed with me all those years," he said. "It was such an injustice."

Although O'Neill's management did their utmost to pull the program, Nine pointed out that O'Neill was contracted to the network and refused to budge.

In an interview with Tracy Grimshaw on A Current Affair on Monday night, Burke said: "I'm guessing it's the social media, the 'Twittersphere' thing, I guess they've stirred this up because of the Harvey Weinstein thing and we've got a witch hunt."

"I am happy to say to the people of Australia: this is my story, make up your mind if I'm the most evil person that's ever lived, that's your decision.

"If you can forgive me for the stupidity and the other things I have done then I am very grateful, but I think that's their decision not mine.

Tracy Grimshaw interviews Don Burke over allegations of sexual harassment and bullying.  Photo: Channel Nine/A Current Affair

Tracy Grimshaw interviews Don Burke over allegations of sexual harassment and bullying. Photo: Channel Nine/A Current Affair

"I have looked in the mirror and there's a lot I don't like. But that's up to the people of Australia to decide can they forgive me or not.

"Some of those things that I'm supposed to have said are absolutely despicable. I wouldn't say those things to other people and if I said I didn't say them, I didn't say them."

Amanda Pepe was a "hope-filled" 20-year-old television journalist in Broken Hill when the celebrity gardener came to town to film stories for Burke's Backyard.

It was in the late 1980s and Burke was filming a story on local art legend Pro Hart. Ms Pepe's boss thought it would be great if she filmed Burke filming Hart.

Burke was flattering, telling Pepe she was "wasted" in the bush.

He was "really close to Sam Chisholm (the Nine media executive)" and he could make her a star, Burke promised.

"I was an idiot, I believed him," she said. The young woman scraped together the money for the airfare and flew to Sydney to take up "the great job opportunity that he had lined up for me".

Burke was at Sydney Airport to pick her up.


Amanda Pepe cried when she told Fairfax Media how she fought Don Burke off. Photo: LinkedIn

Amanda Pepe cried when she told Fairfax Media how she fought Don Burke off. Photo: LinkedIn

Ms Pepe said she started to feel anxious when there was a rose on the passenger seat of his car.

"Of course, no such job existed, just a sad hotel room and a desperate attempt to get me to sleep with him," she recalled.

Ms Pepe began to cry as she recalled fighting Burke off. "There was a lot of physical pushing," she said.

Burke eventually gave up and then begrudgingly told the young woman she could stay in the hotel room for that night. "But after that you are on you own," he said.

"I was jobless and far from home but luckily I had friends who stepped in when Don abandoned me in a city I had never even visited," Ms Pepe said.

"I limped home to Adelaide and licked my wounds."

"I have been weeping today for what was taken from me as a young woman and for the shame of not speaking out and perhaps preventing this dreadful experience for other young women.

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

"This experience caused me to walk away from journalism." Ms Pepe eventually returned to the industry and is now the publishing director of Opinion Media in Adelaide.

'An absolute monster'

As a result, dozens more people have come forward with allegations about Burke.

"I was a researcher for many years, he was horrific,' said one woman.

Another said he was "gobsmackingly disgusting".

Even a producer who worked with him when he did the odd story for A Current Affair in more recent years, said: "I've worked with a lot of pigs but none so depraved as Burke."

One former print journalist said Burke was "alarming and revolting" to deal with. When she went to do a behind-the-scenes story on Burke's Backyard, the program was filming the house of an elderly couple.

"At the house, Don started making revolting and sexual comments about the plants to the lovely elderly lady," she said.

"He said one flower looked like female genitalia after giving birth. Another he said looked like a clitoris. The woman was horrified.

"It was pretty squishy in the house - you know what filming is like, with the crew and everyone - so Don asked me to sit on his lap. I flatly refused.

"He made similar comments at the next people's house. He was an absolute monster."

This story The day Don Burke went to an Olympic swimmer's house first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.