The Teacher’s Pet: hit podcast thrust Lynette Dawson’s 1982 disappearance into the spotlight | Media

The Teacher’s Pet podcast, which has been inextricably linked with the murder trial of Christopher Michael Dawson, won the highest accolade in Australian journalism for Hedley Thomas and Slade Gibson and has been downloaded 60m times internationally.

The judges who awarded the pair the 2018 Gold Walkley award said the Australian newspaper’s 220,000-word podcast “uncovered long-lost statements and new witnesses, and prompted police to dig again for the body of Lyn Dawson, who disappeared from her home in 1982”.

On Tuesday, Dawson, 74, was found guilty of murdering his former wife Lynette four decades ago on Sydney’s northern beaches. Dawson has always maintained his innocence and after the verdict his lawyer confirmed he would appeal.

New South Wales supreme court Justice Ian Harrison referred multiple times to Thomas’s podcast, in particular to the cross-over between the evidence given in court and the interviews those same witnesses had earlier given to Thomas.

He said it was probable, if not certain, that The Teacher’s Pet podcast “may in whole or in part have completely deprived some evidence of its usefulness”.

Of one witness who was interviewed by Thomas, Shelley Oates-Wilding, Harrison said: “I am unable with any confidence, having listened to the extracts of her lengthy, taped conversations with him, to know what part of her evidence comes from what Hedley Thomas told her, and what part of her evidence comes from what she remembered.”

But another witness who took part in the podcast, Julie Andrews, was found to be “reliable and credible”. Harrison said listening to tapes of her unedited interview “did not alter my view that her description of the trampoline incident was credible and reliable”.

Speaking outside court on Tuesday, Thomas said Dawson should have been charged 40 years ago but the system at the time had failed Lynette.

“Lynette Dawson was missing for eight years and just treated as a runaway mother for that time when the circumstances were so gravely suspicious,” Thomas said. “It would not happen today.”

When Dawson was charged in December 2018 the then New South Wales police commissioner Mick Fuller sent an email to Thomas saying “you must be pretty happy mate?”, according to an earlier decision in the case by Justice Elizabeth Fullerton.

Thomas had by then struck a deal for a miniseries of the Teacher’s Pet with Jason Blum’s American production company Blumhouse.

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In April 2019, on advice from the Office of the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, and in the interests of a fair trial, the Australian removed the podcast from all platforms. It had already reached No 1 in the podcast charts in Australia, the UK, Canada and New Zealand.

First published between May and August 2018, the 14-part podcast was reported and narrated by the Queensland-based Thomas, already an award-winning investigative reporter for the Murdoch broadsheet. It was produced by Gibson, a former guitarist for Savage Garden. After Dawson was arrested another three episodes were made.

Thomas began his career in newspapers at 17 as a copy boy at the Gold Coast Bulletin, was a foreign correspondent in London and spent six years at Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post before returning to Queensland in 1999. He has seven Walkley awards, including the 2007 Gold Walkley for a series in the Australian highlighting the flawed police pursuit of Mohamed Haneef, a doctor wrongly accused of being a terrorist.

Hedley Thomas outside the NSW supreme court in June 2022 during the trial of Chris Dawson.
Hedley Thomas outside the NSW supreme court in June 2022 during the trial of Chris Dawson. Photograph: Flavio Brancaleone/AAP

A podcast novice, Thomas began his Teacher’s Pet series three years after the unsolved homicide unit established Strikeforce Scriven to reinvestigate Lynette’s suspected murder. The popularity of the story shone a spotlight on the case and put public pressure on the police. A few months after it aired Dawson was charged.

But Thomas’s attitude towards Dawson as the likely suspect, and interviews with potential witnesses, threatened to derail a fair trial, Dawson’s legal team claimed, and they argued for a permanent stay.

The high court disagreed but Dawson was granted a judge-only trial when the NSW supreme court agreed that “the nature of the podcast and its extremely wide distribution raises real concerns about the fairness of a trial” before a jury.

Thomas gave evidence at Dawson’s trial, telling the court he only wanted justice for Lynette and her family and he believed she had been killed by her husband in January 1982.

“And so justice for Lyn meant to you, didn’t it, the prosecution of Christopher Dawson,” defence barrister Pauline David asked.

“I think that is a fair call, yes,” Thomas replied.

Thomas told the court he believed Dawson was the only suspect but denied he had engaged in a campaign to incite prejudice against him.

“If I had uncovered or received information from anybody that disrupted, changed the narrative … that would have become a very significant part of the podcast,” he said.

Thomas rejected suggestions he influenced potential witnesses by discussing potential movies or miniseries about the case and said it was merely banter during interviews.

“When you held out those deals to them … you appreciated that that would be attractive to them?” David asked.

Thomas said: “Possibly to some, but it might have been very unattractive to others who were introverted or didn’t want to be involved.”

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