Hedley Thomas on writing The Teacher’s Pet

Hedley Thomas on writing The Teacher's Pet

Hedley Thomas is a journalist and has won eight Walkley awards, the first for his investigations into the Australian Federal Police investigations of Dr Mohamed Haneef, and the second for the podcast 'The Teacher's Pet'. In 2023 he published 'The Teacher's Pet' the book, and in this episode Hedley takes the reader behind the scenes of the global podcast.

Hedley Thomas on writing 'The Teacher's Pet'


ASTRID: Like millions of people around the world, I have listened to The Teacher's Pet, and it is extraordinary to hear that voice on this podcast. Thank you for joining me today.

HEDLEY: Thank you so much for having me. Astrid. I'm always amazed when people, particularly professional women, tell me they love hearing my voice. It's a privilege for me to have had that opportunity.

ASTRID: I want to talk to you about two broad topics today. Firstly, the podcast. How you researched it, how you scripted it, how you wrote it, because The Teacher's Pet is not a conversation on a podcast. It is put together, it is highly edited, it is highly scripted, it is telling such an intricate and important story. That does not happen easily. The second thing I'd like to talk to you about is, of course, the book The Teacher's Pet, which is itself an important piece of writing in Australia.

But let's start with the podcast. It first came out in 2018, with 16 episodes, followed by a 17th special episode. It is the story of a cold case, that of Lyn Dawson, and everything that has happened over the last 40 years. Why did it have to be a podcast?

HEDLEY: I took the view that if I had done Lyn's case as a series of newspaper articles, perhaps even lengthy newspaper features, I would not have been able to do justice to the case. It's such a big, deep, rolling saga, with so many serious touchstones. I didn't know much about podcasting, but what I did know from what I'd heard was that you could go deep and wide with a podcast, you could justify running many, many thousands of words more than you would ever do for a series of articles.

I've always been accused of overwriting. Well, now I do it with a podcast. Sixteen episodes was what we produced with The Teacher's Pet. I thought it might be eight episodes, perhaps ten. It ended up being 16, almost 200,000 words. And yeah, as you know, that's about two standard books, 200,000 words at 100,000 words per book. If I had gone to the editor in chief and said, ‘I want to write 200,000 words for the paper’, he would have thought I'd lost my marbles. It wouldn't have happened.

ASTRID: That brings me to a question about investigative journalism. Not only is it hard to do, but it takes such a long time. You can't put a time limit on it. You can't put a word limit on it. And it's expensive. How did you, I mean, obviously, The Teacher's Pet rated well when it was released, Hedley, but how did you make the case to do what was then innovative and not really done in Australia by taking investigative journalism into the audio format?

HEDLEY: The editor in chief and the bureau chief in Queensland, they knew that I had a long interest in this case that I had first investigated in 2001 and that I had loosely followed it over the years since then. When it came to 2017, and it was late October, I raised it again and said, ‘I'd love to do this as a podcast investigation. I really believe we can solve this case. It's still unsolved’. They backed that, even though what we were talking about was a minimum of six months of investigation before the first episodes would start to release. I'm very lucky that I have an employee who gives me that amount of time and latitude and autonomy. I tried to make the most of it. I didn't stop. I mean, I worked like an absolute slave for most of that time. It was intense.

But once I got into it, I think I felt a righteous anger about how Lyn had been let down, let down by the criminal justice system and not forgotten but just had fallen, it seemed, through the cracks. Despite the efforts of her family and lobbying the Office of the DPP from about the year 2001, nothing had happened. The DPP was determined to not prosecute her first husband, who it seemed to me really needed to go on trial over what was a strongly circumstantial case of murder.

ASTRID: There was so much evidence, documentation, hearsay, all sorts of stuff that you wove together to make the podcast, like literally getting to the nuts and bolts of the scripting and the storyboarding and inserting music and grabs from the interviews that you'd done, you know, archival TV, audio, all sorts of things. How did you do it? I'd like the actual nuts and bolts process.

HEDLEY: I was really blessed to have a great audio engineer who became one of my very good friends. His name's Slade Gibson, and I initially met Slade when I went to his studio in Brisbane to do an audio trailer, just a one-minute trailer months before the podcast was due to be released. And I realized that he was a calm, highly knowledgeable guy. He had great skills, he had amazing equipment, I looked at it and had no idea what it did, but it was amazing. I told him about the story, and he started asking very intelligent questions. He's also a musician. He was the guitarist for Savage Garden. I decided that I wanted to do this with Slade, that he would be my wingman if he had the time. And he did have the time. We didn't have a huge budget. In fact, we had a smaller budget when I went back to the Australian and said, ‘I want to use an external audio engineer, not one of the in-house people’. And it was like, ‘Oh, my God, you know, you'd be working on this for months already. And now we're going to have to spend extra money’. But once Slade and I got into a bit of rhythm, with his thoughtfulness and his amazing sense of timing and his good judgment, that really helped enormously.

I would say that anyone proposing to do a podcast, find a good partner who understands the importance of the audio and pacing and music and careful editing. It makes a big difference. Having said that, he hadn't done a podcast before, he had no idea. I remember the editor in chief, Paul Whittaker, saying, ‘Well, what's his experience with podcasts?’ ‘Well, he hasn't done one, but he's listened to some, you know, I've listened to some. We'll be fine. He's a musician and he's an audio engineer’. And it was the best decision I made.

ASTRID: You went in knowing mostly the story that you wanted to be told. And you know, I've just read the book, The Teacher's Pet, where you give some insight into this, Hedley. You knew what you're getting into, you knew what you were putting out on the public record. But if I'm reading the book correctly, you didn't quite anticipate the amount of public interest, not just in terms of people listening to the podcast, but people coming forward with memories or evidence or information or what ifs and hypotheticals and doing their own investigations. That started to feed into the information that you had, the people you could interview. And it meant that, I don't know, your original eight-part story structure was blown out of the water. From that storytelling perspective, how did you deal with this massive influx of new information, all of which obviously had to be verified?

HEDLEY: It was incredibly challenging. And you're right, I didn't anticipate the public response. Many, many people who had been quiet in the past about Lyn's case about what they knew about the school girls, the exploitation of the teachers, of Chris Dawson, they decided, I think, having listened to the first one or two or three episodes, that they wanted to unburden themselves, and they contacted me. And, of course, I wanted to incorporate what they told me into a future episode.

This was the incredible advantage of The Teacher's Pet. The way we did it, we hadn't completed the production of the series, I hadn't written more than a handful of episodes when we decided to release the first one. And that wasn't because I expected there would be this influx of information, it was just because I was getting impatient sitting at home, writing thousands and thousands of words for each episode in advance of release. I just thought, ‘I want the story to start rolling now. I'll be able to keep up because while people are listening to episode one, I'll be working on episode five or six, it'll be fine’. But then when everyone started coming to me with information, and I wanted to incorporate it at the earliest opportunity. That meant reworking, ripping out parts of the draft episodes that had been all but completed, and then having to work out how or where I would accommodate the bits that I had to rip out later in the series. That meant the series grew.

The other important difference it made was it signaled to listeners that the podcast was a live investigation. It was unfolding week to week. They would hear in the interviews I was doing people talking about how they'd contacted me because of something that they had read or heard in an earlier episode, or I would say that and so for the listeners, they're going, ‘He's working on it in real time. It's not something that's been completed and smooth and polished and legal, checked and so on for weeks before release. It's evolving’. And the reason that was important was it encouraged more people to come forward. It became a snowball.

ASTRID: What impact do you think is the impact of The Teacher's Pet, but also more broadly true crime podcasting that has been done in Australia and around the world? You know, in your book, you quote Serial, and that was the first global true crime podcast. What effect do you think that has had on contemporary investigative journalism? And how journalism butts up against the legal system? And I guess how the media can hold the justice system to account?

HEDLEY: Sometimes I think the whole genre of podcasting is fantastic for deep diving journalism for investigative journalism. And for audiences, it's, I think, restored that faith and confidence of listeners in the ability of journalism to look at complex things in a really detailed way, and hopefully to get results. That's a huge advantage. I think that sections of the law and judiciary are still grappling with how to deal with podcasting. And you know, I butted heads fairly robustly, I was going say violently, with sections of legal and criminal justice system over The Teacher's Pet. There are lawyers who have told me they absolutely hate my podcast, because they saw me lining up a person in Chris Dawson and making out a case of murder before he had faced any trial. That's true. But I didn't do that, just on some folly, on some sort of fantasy that was ill informed. I well knew that two very experienced coroner's, who had considered the evidence, hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence, had recommended that the DPP prosecute Dawson not once but twice, in 2001 and 2003. Both times the DPP had rejected that. And there had been many subsequent attempts all foiled by the Office of the DPP. You know, who was in the wrong? I mean, in my view, the Office of the DPP should have prosecuted years before I did the podcast. And I make no apology for taking this approach. Because this was now or never. A killer had got away with it, and perhaps still would have got away with it if it hadn't been for The Teacher's Pet.

ASTRID: So what was the experience like before you released an episode? You know, the podcast getting legalled? Obviously, this one out under The Australian’s banner, so I guess you had the protection of a masthead and the legal service there, what was that experience like?

HEDLEY: I always felt like I would be looked after by our very good lawyers. And I knew I had the backing of the editors and the executives of the business. That was a huge comfort when you're taking on a case like this. But we were under no misapprehension, this was a case and a podcast that would inevitably be saying that Chris Dawson was a probable murderer. You can't sugarcoat that. Listening to The Teacher's Pet, hearing the evidence, most of them form that view. I haven't heard many people who've said, ‘I listened to your podcast, and that poor bastard is as innocent as the day is long’. So when you do run podcasts like that, and you make those cases and the evidence pans out the way it does, the defamation risk is obviously very significant. We couldn't have done the podcast and the way we did it if we were trying to be legally safe or reduce our risk of defamation to something negligible. We always went into it knowing that it was defamatory, but it was defensible that if he wanted to take us on and sue us for defamation, then we would play truth. We would try to prove in a civil proceeding that he murdered Lyn. We also doubted that he would want to take that risk, that he would want to get into a witness box. He never has.

ASTRID: Defamatory but defensible is an amazingly powerful phrase and idea, Hedley. Just for the listeners of the podcast in 2022. As you know, the trial was happening. The Australian did take down the podcast and edit bits of it and put it up. Can you just correct my understanding?

HEDLEY:  So slightly off in the timing. What happened was Dawson was charged with Lyn's murder in December 2018. We had just released the 16th and final episode of The Teacher's Pet when he was extradited to Sydney. We decided in early 2019 that we would remove The Teacher's Pet podcast series throughout Australia, but keep it going in the rest of the world because we knew that the risk of Dawson

arguing that he couldn't get a fair trial was large. But that if we managed it this way, taking the whole production down in Australia while his trial was pending, but keeping it up around the world, we were being very responsible. That was something that the Office of the DPP appreciated. And perhaps even begrudgingly, Dawson appreciate it. So the podcast stayed down, and it only reemerged in September of 2022 immediately after Justice Ian Harrison found Dawson guilty of Lyn's murder. But I had to reiterate the whole series. The podcast that you listened to in Australia now is a regenerated version. It's had a few tweaks and additions and deletions to reflect the legal issues that existed at the time, and the fact that a carnal knowledge trial was pending. Now, that kind of all his trial is out of the way.

ASTRID: Thank you for that clarification. Let's turn to the book, Hedley. A really obvious question, but a very important one. Why turn the experience of making The Teacher's Pet and everything that went on behind the scenes into a book?

HEDLEY: I always felt that the story of Lyn and Chris and the schoolgirl, in fact many school girls in that era, and the conduct and inaction of the police and the prosecutors and of journalism, and of Lyn’s friends, I always thought that there was so much more to tell, but it wasn't appropriate for the podcast series. I didn't want to tell that full backstory in another podcast series, but I wanted to try to leave a record, a written record, of a case that it was such an enormous privilege for me to be involved in and that touched many, many people. No one could have predicted it would have ended up the way the way it did, or the toll that it took on a news organization, on my family, on me, on Lyn's friends and family, on cops and prosecutors. I wanted to explain what was going on behind the scenes, so much material that people had no inkling of. I mean, there's a lengthy chapter where there's a very concerted bid by Chris Dawson to kill off any potential prosecution of him in a murder trial. Many people would have no idea that that was even occurring because it was suppressed. All of that I felt would be important for a book.

When Pan Macmillan asked me to do the book, I was happy to have a crack at it. They were very patient. They asked me in September 2018, before Chris Dawson was charged, and I didn't start writing this book until the third week of February 2023 this year, because I didn't want my manuscript to be subpoenaed by the defense lawyers or anyone else, with legal proceedings still pending until recently. When I did start writing, and I think my head was filled with so many ideas, there was so much material, I had folders of evidence and documents. I had all my original notes, even from 2001 when I first looked at this story and flew to Sydney from Brisbane and spent hours in a police station going through folders of evidence. Why did I even get access to that evidence? I mean, I still can't believe that that happened. But it feels like karma has brought us to this final position.

ASTRID: Hedley, I can't believe you started writing early in 2023 and I am holding the book in October 2023. I speak to a lot of writers, and that contract notwithstanding, is an extraordinary turnaround. This is like 450 pages. I would have thought that the scripting of the podcast was more intense. But how was the writing process for this book for you? Ingrid Olson, who's one of the executives at Pan Macmillan, she has been so wonderful to work with. She would catch up with me over the years, and we're talking because this idea was first put to me in 2018. And as I said, I didn't do it for ages. I said to her at lunch in Sydney the other day when she handed me the copy that you've got, I said, ‘Ingrid, were you ever worried that you wouldn't get to this place? We ever worried that this book wouldn't come out? And she said, ‘Well, yeah, there was that point when in February, you were saying, Are you angry? I think I will start soon. I've just tidied my office. I've been moving the furniture around, and I've got a new desk and everything's getting into place’. And Ingrid's thinking, ‘Look, I care about the interior, just start writing the frickin thing’. But I just think I had to, in my own mind, be free of these other challenges I had.

The trial was exhausting. I was doing a podcast series throughout the trial called The Teacher’s Trial. I also had other murder investigations on involving the slaying of a 23-year-old girl in Mackay, Shandee’s Story. Then there was an inquiry as a result of that podcast. There were so many other things I was working on, and I think there was part of me that was a bit traumatized by some of the things that had come as a result of the state proceedings that I go into in the book – the challenges and the legal attempts by Chris Dawson's lawyers to terminate a murder proceeding because they said my podcast had ruined his chance for a fair trial – all of that undoubtedly troubled me. Sometimes I would just feel a real knot in the pit of my stomach, when people would talk about the case it would just give me a nervous and uncomfortable, anxious nervous reaction. That's another reason why I put it off. I also knew that when I finally did start to write the book, I wanted to write it with the confidence of having a verdict. But I felt that if I started writing the book, ahead of a trial, not only would I run the risk of all of my draft chapters having to be handed over under legal order. I don't think I would have felt very confident in my storytelling, I would have been pulling punches or not telling the full story because it would just be this uncertainty when we got the verdict in late August. Then we knew there was just a carnal knowledge trial pending, it made a big difference to my own confidence and my energy. Why did I wait until the last week of February? I think I was still too exhausted. I was having a lot of fun playing with Thelma and Louise, our two heifer cows, that we acquired to help keep the grass down at our place in Brisbane. And I was finding I was, it's got to be to be honest, Astrid, I was probably still putting it off, perhaps because they then was in a little bit of imposter syndrome and wondering whether I could do whether I could do this book justice, do Lyn's case justice.

When I did sit down and start smashing it out – I think it was like 23 February 23 – I created the first chapter, chapter one, I enjoyed it. I started to feel a rhythm and a momentum. I had access to so many thousands of pages of material, much more material than I had when I first started this podcast. And that was a big help. And I remember saying to Ingrid, at one stage, ‘Ingrid, I actually think we need to do two books’. She said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I’ll do the first book up until the time of his arrest, and then Book Two, which I can write next year, will be everything that follows, because I've already done so many words in terms of the narrative arc of the story. You know, I'm so far behind where I should be for the amount of words you want me to do’. Ingrid suggested 80,000 to 100,000 words. I don't know if you know, it's about 156,000 words. I busted their word limits. Ingrid talked me down from the idea of two books. The compromise was I could just keep writing until I thought it was exhausted. And even then, during the edits, I was thinking of other things I wanted to put in the book that weren't there.

Danielle Walker, amazing editor for Pan Macmillan was working with me. She said, ‘Well, we’ve kind of run out of pages’. I said, ‘It's okay, I've found in this chapter that the last page of the chapter only goes a quarter of the way down the page, so there's room in that chapter. I've only got 300 words we can, we can put it there to work perfectly there’. I did that half a dozen times to just add these extra nuggets that were important to me, and I think will be important to readers.

ASTRID: That is true old school journalism style, knowing exactly how many words you can squeeze onto a page or a paragraph.

I did notice in my read of The Teacher's Pet you do include yourself. How you are feeling?

HEDLEY: It took and it did take a toll.

ASTRID: I recently interviewed Chris Masters, who has been doing, you know, investigative journalism into Ben Roberts-Smith, and has also recently written a book. He reflected on the extraordinary toll that investigative journalism takes on the journalist and those close to the journalist. I'm interested in why you chose to share that on the page.

HEDLEY: Ingrid was very keen, having heard about parts of the story, for me to share those things. I know that, as my friend Claire Harvey said, I'm quite vulnerable. In this book I talk about personal things, and the strain on my own family and on my marriage. I've got an incredibly supportive partner in my wife, Ruth. But, you know, we almost lost it through the podcasts in 2018, because of the stress and pressures. And for me, the story is also deeply personal. I knew in 2001 that there was a very probable murder and a serious injustice. But the reason I think I became so committed to this case only after my father died in early 2017, the reason I think I took on the podcast and became fairly obsessed was because of this family secret about my grandmother – my father's mother – and her disappearance when she was 35 years old, raising my father and his sister in a house near the water on the northern beaches of Sydney. I know it had a profound impact on my father. And, you know, I think I wanted to try to answer questions about Lyn, but also feel a bit closer to Dad, and perhaps try to answer questions about what had happened to my grandmother.

At the same time, although I never dealt with that in the podcast, I never talked about it in interviews. When I would be asked sometimes by very perceptive interviewers, you know, ‘Is there something else driving you here?’, or ‘What, what else might be going on here because you sound so committed?’ and so on. And I usually just would deflect. Well, I always would deflect, I wouldn't disclose it, because I just wasn't ready to. I didn't feel comfortable talking about it. But then while agonizing about how to deal with it in the book, I decided that this is my personal record. If I'm not going to do it here, then I'm not really being true to myself or the craft or journalism and the underlying driver for why this happened.

ASTRID: Thank you for sharing that Hedley. And just as a reader who adores what writers do on the page, I think it makes the book very powerful.

It is another powerful thread, another layer to the story of what happened to Lyn Dawson and why. But also the other thread, what happens to women?


ASTRID: Which comes through this book a great deal.

HEDLEY: I thought long and hard about my grandmother, who cause I never knew. I looked at photographs of her with my Dad and with my Aunty and just tried to understand what it was like for them to grow up without her and to reconcile what might have happened to her. We don't know for certain, and there's a version and that may be all there is to it. It's one of these great mysteries, but would I have done The Teacher's Pet if there hadn't been this remarkable event in 1956 in the same place, involving a young man? I think almost certainly, no.

ASTRID: That's an extraordinary reflection. I understand the importance of objectivity in journalism, Hedley, but I also understand that journalistic people need a reason to tell, to really fuck up their lives to follow a story to the very bitter end. And I think it's a wonderful thing. Thank you, Hedley, and congratulations on The Teacher's Pet the book. It's truly a fucking great read.

HEDLEY: Thank you, that is a very wonderful thing to say. I'm quite moved that you say that because

I haven't shared it with many people. I haven't had a chance to get feedback yet from people, and you know, people at Pan say they thought it was remarkable, but you probably expect your publisher to tell you that. So well, if they really hate it, they won't publish it. But yeah, I look at it as a bit of a legacy piece too. Perhaps I don't know if I'll do another book. I think that it's personally important book for me to write. It's deep and long and wide, and I loved parts of the writing of it. I was supposed to have finished it – I set myself a ridiculous deadline – I was supposed to have finished it by 1 June because that was when Ruth and I were heading to Italy on a long-planned month-long holiday. But, of course, I hadn't come close to finishing it, I still had at least 45 50,000 words to write. Every third day or so in Italy I would just absent myself from the tour or whatever we're doing and sit down and write. I enjoyed that, like propped up at a cafe in Palermo outside the Opera House and in the garden of a villa and Positano and in a public square in Ravello, I'd be tapping away. It was really, I don't know, it just felt very fulfilling. I had taken away several folders of evidence and my laptop and my headphones, I could listen to the audio interviews that I had recorded but not reflected in the podcast with new material. And I was just sending the chapters back one by one to the good people at Pan, and I was still working hard. When I got back. I still had several chunky chapters to write but the end was insight. I think it was August that we finally finished and then they said, ‘Oh, and now we need end notes’. That took a whole week, and they were long, long days doing all those, but luckily, I do have all the material documented and it's all in folders.

ASTRID: So you do. Hedley once again, congratulations. May it sell well.

HEDLEY: Thank you, Astrid. It's been a beautiful interview. I really appreciated your insights and your very warm approach to this conversation. That means a lot coming from you Headley. Thank you.