Pepe, the publishing director at Opinion Media and a former publisher of InDaily, first met Burke in the late 1980s in Broken Hill, where she had won her first job in journalism as a reporter at the local television station.
What happened next has caused her to add her name to the dozens of women who have called out the former Channel Nine star for his alleged behaviour over many years – from claims of bullying to sexual harassment.
Burke, who has admitted he was a difficult person to work with but strongly denied broader allegations, came to Broken Hill about a year after the 20-year-old Pepe started her career.
He was in town to film stories about Pro Hart and other outback characters.
“He rolled into town with great fanfare with a huge crew,” Pepe recalls. “Naturally, as the only TV station in town, we hosted them and I was tasked with doing a story about him doing a story. Even at that tender stage of my journalistic development I struggled with that concept but obediently followed them around, diving in with a question whenever I could and instructing my cameraman to look for images that put the Sydney visitors into a Broken Hill context.
“At the end of the first day Don declared that we would all dine out together, to thank us for making them feel so welcome. Needless to say, many drinks were consumed. Over dinner, Don’s comments were aimed squarely at my young ego. Classic lines such as ‘you’re wasted up here’, ‘there are so many opportunities in Sydney’ interspersed with more personal comments on my appearance.”
Burke said she would be perfect for a new magazine-style television program he was producing, and offered her an on-air job.
“I fell for it, hook, line and sinker,” she told InDaily.
She resigned from her job, sent her belongings back to Adelaide, and flew to Sydney, full of hope.
She was apprehensive when Burke himself was at the airport to pick her up, and alarmed to see a red rose on the passenger seat.
“I thought ‘right, I’m in trouble’,” she says.
Burke took her to the hotel where she was booked to stay and followed her to her room, where she says he made it clear he expected sex.
She rejected him vehemently – she recalls pushing and shoving.
“I was pretty forceful about the refusal. I seem to remember someone being pushed on to the bed – I don’t think it was me.”
Burke eventually gave up his advances and told her she had made “the worst mistake of your life”.
“He told me ‘you’ve got tonight then you’re on your own’.”
Pepe called Pro Hart, who arranged for a Sydney friend put her up for the night.
The next day she went home to Adelaide and abandoned her career in the media. While she eventually found her way back in to the industry as a manager, she wonders what her career could have been without her encounter with Burke.
“I suppose I will never know – that’s what makes me the saddest,” she said.
“If I had been shown support and appropriate encouragement, then who knows what I might have been?”
She never made a complaint.
“I didn’t even think it was an option,” she said. “It honestly didn’t occur to me. He was so powerful and so famous.
“He knew he could get away with it, so he did it. The people around him who said they didn’t know – I can’t stomach that. There’s no way they wouldn’t have known.”
When she read the accounts of other women’s encounters with Burke in Fairfax Media this week, she became determined to speak out about what happened to her and its long-term impact.
“I think this was deeply personal, at a time when I was very vulnerable. This has just brought that back to the surface.
“It’s a trust thing. Women really have a job working out who they can trust in society.
“I think you are damaged for life when this happens. It has affected me personally and in business.
“What about the other women we’ve never heard from?”
Pepe joins more than 50 women who have approached journalist Tracey Spicer about Burke’s behaviour, with the allegations including bullying, sexual harassment and indecent assault during his time as a Nine Network star hosting Burke’s Backyard.
Spicer is working with Fairfax Media on a broader project to unveil sexual misconduct in the media industry.
Burke says he is “deeply hurt and outraged” by the allegations made against him.
He told Nine’s A Current Affair program on Monday that ex-employees with a grudge were out to get him.
“There is a lot of people that don’t like me and they can’t all be wrong. I guess this is the Harvey Weinstein thing and we’ve got a witch hunt,” he said.
“I’m prepared to cop that I might have terrified a few people and that I shouldn’t have done that … towards the end of Burke’s Backyard I must have been a bear with a bloody sore head and I do apologise for it.
“I have looked in the mirror and there’s a lot I don’t like.”
He said there’s a lot of hatred toward him and “that’s my fault” and admits claims of bullying “may be true”.
But Burke insists the claims being made are things that he would never say or do and were despicable.
“I’ve got a lot of failings but I’m not that man.” he said.
InDaily has contacted Burke’s production company to seek his response to Pepe’s specific allegations.
– with AAP
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