Spotlight on: Hedley Thomas
“Lots of listeners are still very concerned about what happened, on an emotional and personal level. That’s something I haven’t struck before.” The Gold Walkley-winning voice of The Teacher’s Pet podcast on why he became a journalist.
2018 Gold Walkley & Investigative Journalism category winner, 2018 Walkley Awards
Hedley Thomas wrote and recorded an average of more than 15,000 words each week as new informants came forward in what became a live, unfolding investigation into the disappearance of Sydney mother Lyn Dawson. A massive amount of work went into this podcast investigation — and massive audiences followed. With more than 34 million downloads in December 2018, it is the only Australian podcast to go to number 1 in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand. Thomas found files he was told had been destroyed, and persuaded new witnesses to talk. “The Teacher’s Pet” triggered a broader public campaign for justice for Lyn, and Chris Dawson was arrested earlier in December.
How did you find this story?
I found the story in 2001 when the first inquest was held. I reported on it then, in a long weekend feature read for The Courier-Mail. I always wanted to revisit it, it seemed so wrong on many levels. I had the opportunity to revisit it in late 2017, that started the podcast investigation that went through the first half of 2018, ’til we launched the first episode in May.
What did it take to get this story up?
The story took a huge amount of time because I wanted to thoroughly investigate so many different angles, and do quite detailed recorded interviews with people. But before I could do the interviews I had to read a huge amount of evidence from earlier inquests so I could possibly find new witnesses. The hours were crazy, pretty much every weekend as well as early starts on weekdays, through ’til late at night.
There was significant potential risk from defamation … So I was at all times consulting our lawyers and getting advice from them about how to handle that.
How would you sum up the impact of “The Teacher’s Pet”?
I’ve had many, many people telling me they’ve listened to a podcast for the first time, and that they’ve heard this story for the first time. Lots of listeners are still very concerned about what happened, on an emotional and personal level. That’s something I haven’t struck before with other stories that I’ve done.
As a direct result of my investigations in this case, a whole new strike force was started by the police to investigate the sex crimes in the northern beaches high schools in this period, that is an ongoing investigation.
Lyn Dawson’s family and friends believed that they would probably never see justice — they’re very happy that now they are seeing justice. That’s a combination of the police investigations, I don’t want to pretend that it’s all me. But there has been that impact and the family are really grateful. I think they’ve seen their faith somewhat restored.
And I think for countless young people, particularly schoolgirls, as well as women in abusive relationships, and the people who know them, I think that the story behind “The Teacher’s Pet” is going to have an enormous impact in helping educate and inform on the dangers and the warning signs where there are predators and domestic violence and abuse.
So there will be benefits that we’ll never be able to measure in that regard. And of course — we know where we’re at with the justice system.
What made you want to be a journalist?
I think I was just really curious! About the magic that appeared to come out of newspapers. My parents were avid readers. My dad, also named Hedley, was often buried in the pages of The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald, and as a small boy I think I was influenced by that. My mother Diana was an incredibly vivid and entertaining storyteller.
I was really curious, loved stories, loved storytelling. From a young age, I knew that was what I wanted to do. As a young teenager, I was 14, at my friends' houses, I’d go over there and their parents’ newspapers would be on the coffee table — I‘d make a beeline for them. I had an attraction to papers, wanting to understand storytelling and reporting from an early age.
What are you most proud of about the stories you’ve told?
I’m most proud that it’s touched many people. Many people who didn’t know Lyn, but who feel like they now do know Lyn. I’m most touched that Lyn’s family and friends, who have trusted me to tell the story, have seen a result that they didn’t think they’d ever see. Those are the two biggest things.
What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?
I couldn’t have done this podcast, this investigation, couldn’t have spent this amount of time on it, unless there was significant backup. It costs a lot of money. It’s the only story I worked on all year. Yes, there have been hundreds of stories out of it, hundreds of thousands of words have been written… it’s been a painstaking but expensive experience. And unless Australians step up and support this kind of journalism, it won’t happen.
Anything else you’d like to add?
“The Teacher’s Pet” couldn’t have been made without Slade Gibson, his brilliance as a musician, and an audio engineer. He was my partner, we did this together, and he’s become a really good friend in the process as well. (Read a bit more about Slade in Kate Prendergast’s interview with Hedley published earlier this year).
Hedley Thomas began his career in newspapers at 17 as a copy boy at The Gold Coast Bulletin. He was a foreign correspondent in London and spent six years at Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post before returning to Queensland in 1999. His mantelpiece now boasts seven Walkley Awards, including the 2007 Gold Walkley.
See all the 2018 Walkley winners here.
The 2018 Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism was supported by Bayer.
The 2018 Gold Walkley was supported by Apple.