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Revered Australian TV host feels ripples of Weinstein scandal

SYDNEY >> On television sets he was a relaxed, cheerful man with an engaging smile. The star of a top-rated gardening and lifestyle show, he was an Australian television legend, lauded in the 1990s and considered one of the most powerful men in the country’s entertainment industry.

But this week reports emerged that the once-beloved Don Burke could be a very different man behind closed doors. He is now at the center of a national reckoning over sexual harassment in the workplace, after being publicly accused of harassing, assaulting and bullying women during his professional heyday.

“The Harvey Weinstein saga in Hollywood started a witch hunt,” Burke said, denying the allegations and citing the cascade of sexual harassment revelations touched off by inquiries into the American film mogul’s treatment of women.

Burke, 70, is the first high-profile figure in Australia to be shamed publicly in the furor set off by the Weinstein story. Australians say the conversation in the United States has emboldened women halfway around the world to come forward.

“Having women find their voice in the U.S. is very influential in helping women to find their voice in Australia,” said Elizabeth Broderick, who was the longest serving sex discrimination commissioner in Australia.

“I think for many women, they’ve actually spoken up in the past — but they haven’t spoken to an environment that’s prepared to listen,” she added.

Burke has been accused of groping his former female colleagues’ breasts, asking a woman to audition topless for a family-oriented show, and trying to remove a television researcher’s clothing and inappropriately touching her while on a work trip, among other transgressions.

“I am deeply hurt and outraged at the false and defamatory claims made,” Burke said in a statement about the accounts of his behavior, first reported Monday by ABC-Fairfax.

People in the media industry say the allegations against Burke reflect a type of behavior that has always been rife and well known — but not considered news until now.

“When we see these issues in the U.S., when you know powerful people come out and say no, that has a contagion effect,” Broderick said. “What’s shifting now is there’s a much greater preparedness for people to listen.”

Other experts, like Catharine Lumby, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney who has specialized in gender studies, say that the “dams have broken” by what people here are calling the Weinstein effect — and that it is rippling across the world.

In Europe, the French have been among the most vocal in calling out once-ignored abusers. In Britain, allegations of sexual misconduct have convulsed Parliament.

Here in Australia, the focus on Burke has reinvigorated debate about a power gap between men and women in the Australian news media, and provoked a candid discussion about what some describe as this country’s culture of masculinity — a subject that some say has been ignored for too long.

“The role of the ‘bloke’ in our society is one that’s been venerated,” said Tracey Spicer, an author who has been writing and talking about sexual harassment and assault in the Australian media for more than a decade.

“And this boys’ club or locker room mentality extends to the boardrooms,” she added. “They simply don’t take sexual harassment seriously.”

Weeks after The New York Times and The New Yorker first published articles about accusations against Weinstein, the “Me Too” campaign exploded on social media here as a vehicle for women to share their stories.

Through a simple tweet telling the world she was investigating two long-term offenders, Spicer invited women to share their stories privately. Hundreds subsequently contacted her, revealing a tsunami of injustice, she said.

The accusations against Burke are likely to produce more accounts of abuses in the media and entertainment industries, experts say.

This week the academy award-winning actor Geoffrey Rush, who is from Australia, was accused publicly of “inappropriate behavior” during his work with the Sydney Theater Co. Rush vigorously denied the allegations, and his lawyer said that his name had been smeared and reputation damaged.

But the media industry is particularly delicate terrain, Spicer said.

“A lot of men in the media don’t want the story told, because they feel they’ve been complicit, either as offenders or enablers,” she said. “And women fear they’ll never work again in this very small industry if they speak out.”

That and women’s relative lack of power in the industry help explain Australia’s lag in debating whether its media serve to protect harassers, Spicer said.

While women make up more than half the employees in the industry, they typically occupy the lower paid, less powerful roles, she said, a situation entrenched further by Australia’s historical culture of toxic masculinity.

A national survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2012 found that one in four women had been sexually harassed at work in the preceding five years, said Kate Jenkins, Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, adding that the figure was little changed over previous surveys.

But a sign of Australia’s greater willingness to address the issue, experts say, is the group Male Champions of Change, formed in 2010 with a handful of leaders and now encompassing more than 100 of Australia’s most influential men working to redefine men’s roles by tackling gender inequality.

“The other part of the Weinstein effect is that we have to continue to work with men — and particularly powerful men — to make sure that when women speak the system listens,” said Broderick, the former sex discrimination commissioner who is also the founder of Male Champions of Change. “Because it is men that represent the system.”

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