Don Burke campaigned against domestic violence in 1993 despite complaints from women

Don Burke on the poster for a 1993 federal government domestic violence campaign. Photo: Supplied
Don Burke on the poster for a 1993 federal government domestic violence campaign. Photo: Supplied

When the federal government launched its "Real men don't bash or rape women" campaign in 1993, four iconic Australian men were featured as "ambassadors" for it.

But when one of them was revealed to be Don Burke, then a major television celebrity, there was an immediate backlash.

"As soon as his face appeared in ads, we were contacted by several women saying that he was not appropriate for the campaign because he himself was an abuser," said a former public servant who was involved in the campaign.

Shocked at the allegations, the Office of the Status of Women, which was running the "Stop Violence Against Women" campaign, contacted Burke.

Don Burke's program Burke's Backyard was a ratings juggernaut for Channel Nine. Photo: Supplied

Don Burke's program Burke's Backyard was a ratings juggernaut for Channel Nine. Photo: Supplied

"We tried to convince him to withdraw from the campaign through his management - he refused," the source said.

Burke, whose program Burke's Backyard was a ratings juggernaut at the time, was quoted in the advertisement saying: "Many people suffer stress, get drunk, lose their jobs, get angry or jealous without resorting to violence. There is never an excuse for a man to be violent towards a woman."

The campaign also featured swimming legend Kieren Perkins, singer James Blundell and ironman Darren Mercer.

Journalist Jacqui Lang, who was working at the magazine New Weekly (now NW), recalled being surprised when a woman rang the magazine to say that Burke had to be removed from the campaign because he had assaulted her.

Some years later, she also made enquiries at Nine's publicity department about allegations of harassment against Burke. Her enquiry was ignored, she said.

A joint investigation by Fairfax Media and the ABC has revealed that Burke indecently assaulted at least two female researchers who worked at Burke's Backyard.

In the late 1980s, Amanda Pepe, then 20, was lured from Broken Hill to Sydney on the false pretence that Burke would offer her a job on his show. Instead, he picked her up from the airport and took her to a hotel where he made unwanted sexual advances.


The 1993 federal government domestic violence campaign of which Don Burke was heavily featured. Photo: Supplied

The 1993 federal government domestic violence campaign of which Don Burke was heavily featured. Photo: Supplied

Sources have also confirmed that at Channel Nine's 1989 season launch, an 18-year-old television newcomer had too much to drink. When a senior producer was asked to help the teenager back to her hotel room he was shocked to find the door to her room slightly ajar.

"Sitting in the shadows - in the darkened room, with no lights - was the hunched-over figure of Don Burke," the producer said.

"Don tried telling me that she'd given him her room key while on the boat so he could teach her 'presentation skills' back in the room."

After arguing with the network's star for an hour, the producer finally got him to leave the hotel room.

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

"This was predatory behaviour - any normal person would have left straight away, but Don was determined to stay there and do god-knows-what to this girl," he said.

Despite complaints to Nine's management from those who witnessed Burke's behaviour during the launch party and from the producer who ejected him from the hotel room, no action was taken against Burke.

Further allegations

Other women have come forward to share their horror stories on having to deal with Burke.

"Working on Burke's Backyard recording Don Burke doing his studio hostings was not an enjoyable experience," one woman recalled.

"I remember one day we were recording a Mothers' Day Special and the set was covered in chrysanthemums about which Don Burke kept making jokes comparing them to women's private parts.

"Having to listen to his deeply offensive comments and stories was a part of the job that I realise now none of us should have had to put up with."

On one occasion she recalled using a bathroom close to the studio.

"Don Burke was in there when I came out. I tried to get around him and he mirrored my sidestep, made some sleazy comment about helping me pull my pants up," she said.

The woman fled back to the control room, upset and humiliated.

"It never entered my head to make a complaint. He was who he was. And I knew what would happen if I'd made a complaint," she said.

Celebrated children's author Jackie French, who had previously supported Burke, backed away from the embattled celebrity on Tuesday. "The man you uncovered is not the one I knew," French told Fairfax Media.


Don Burke's gardening book joked about assaulting women. Photo: Supplied

Don Burke's gardening book joked about assaulting women. Photo: Supplied

Burke's own publications were not the most appropriate tomes for an "ambassador" against domestic violence.

In chapter six of his book The Lazy Gardener, Burke joked about assaulting women.

"A woman, a dog, a walnut tree. The more you beat them, the better they be," it reads.

Burke describes it as the "greatest of all English truisms".

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This story Don Burke campaigned against domestic violence in 1993 despite complaints from women first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.