Inside Story

The media’s pet

It’s had more than twenty-seven million downloads at last count, but what did The Teacher’s Pet really uncover?

Jeremy Gans 26 November 2018 2300 words

Prompted by the reaction to The Teacher’s Pet, NSW Police and Forensic Services personnel search the grounds of the former home of missing woman Lynette Dawson, at Bayview, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, in September. No remains were found. Dan Himbrechts/AAP Image

Late last week, Hedley Thomas became the second person to win two Gold Walkley awards, the top prize for Australian journalism. (The only other double winner is the late cartoonist Ron Tandberg.) Thomas’s first gold, a decade ago, was for dozens of articles in the Australian about federal authorities’ investigation of Muhamed Haneef for supposed links to a terrorist attack on Glasgow airport. That series also netted him the award for print journalism. His more recent gold-winning story — which wasn’t eligible for a print award, though Thomas is still with the Australian — was for The Teacher’s Pet, a fourteen-episode podcast on the unsolved disappearance, thirty-six years ago, of Lyn Dawson. It also picked up the Walkley for investigative journalism.

The contrast between Thomas’s two Gold Walkeys goes well beyond their medium. Thomas’s first win was founded on his prescient argument that federal authorities’ case against Dr Haneef was shaky. Mundane behaviour on his part — giving his British second cousin his mobile phone when he moved to Australia; seeking to fly urgently to India following his wife’s difficult delivery of their child; taking a snapshot of a Gold Coast high-rise — was treated as damningly suspicious. The police and prosecutors, Thomas argued, were too quick to detain, too quick to charge and too open to political pressure. And journalists were too willing to accept the police’s (false) leaks and too slow to engage with the real heroes, Haneef’s lawyers, who risked professional criticism by leaking the police’s scattergun interrogations of Haneef to Thomas and winning their client crucial public support.

The 2007 Gold Walkley united the fractious media in praise, guaranteeing Thomas’s place in the Australian journalism pantheon. It also did much to bolster the Australian’s reputation as it geared up for Labor’s years in power. Most importantly, the articles permanently pricked the credibility bubble of Australia’s counterterrorism agencies.

Ten years later, Thomas’s hit podcast couldn’t be more different. In an early episode of The Teacher’s Pet, Thomas tells us of a man “who murdered his wife to be with his new lover” — pause — “according to NSW detectives and two coroners.” That man, former high school teacher Chris Dawson, has never been charged, let alone convicted, of anything. According to Thomas, the police (in the early years) and prosecutors (throughout) were too timid to bring him to justice.

Dawson insists that he had nothing to do with his wife Lyn’s disappearance in early January 1982, but Thomas believes that Dawson’s sexual misconduct with a teenager at his school — the eponymous “teacher’s pet,” the couple’s babysitter and later Dawson’s wife and ex-wife — says otherwise. Thomas’s view is widely shared by other journalists who have covered the case, as well as by a bevy of investigators, relatives and pundits and, now, by the millions of listeners to his podcast. While plausible, there is hardly any evidence to support it.

Instead, The Teacher’s Pet is largely an attack on Dawson himself. It details claims that he abused his first two wives both physically and emotionally; uncovers a handful of alleged lies and some possibly odd remarks about renovations at the former matrimonial home; and recounts increasingly lurid tales of sexual misconduct by Dawson, his twin brother (who is also said to have slept with the babysitter) and other teachers in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Its centrepiece is a “long lost” handwritten statement (supplied mid-broadcast by an “unlikely source”) that Dawson wrote for police after he reported his wife missing in mid 1982. The statement made no mention of his relationship with the babysitter, and Thomas thinks that the only “really credible explanation” for why a schoolteacher would fail to tell police that he was “utterly infatuated” with one of his students is that he was covering up his wife’s murder.

As admissible evidence goes, the podcast’s case is even less compelling than what the federal police thought they had on Dr Haneef. As for wider lessons, all Thomas can offer is a poignant but unsurprising reflection on how few people took domestic violence or sexual misconduct seriously in the early 1980s.

The Teacher’s Pet falls squarely within the pattern of true crime podcasts in Australia. The new genre owes its massive popularity to a This American Life spin-off, Serial, which in 2014 pioneered and exemplified the merits of a deep dive into a single criminal case through the medium of podcasting. Like many overseas hits that came after it, Serial was an investigation of a case that had already been through the criminal justice system and had landed a man in jail for life. It explored the evidence in the case afresh and challenged both the official verdict and the process that led to it, while maintaining that the real truth about the case is largely unknowable.

To date, no Australian podcast has taken this approach. Rather, nearly all have probed unsolved cases and argued that the authorities have failed to investigate obvious suspects adequately, be they rich boyfriends, local thugs, molesting priests or dodgy teens. The best American podcasts involve years of fieldwork: the crew of the In The Dark podcast’s second season, for example, located, combed through and followed up thousands of dusty court records in Mississippi to demonstrate a local prosecutor’s racial bias, evidence that prompted a Supreme Court review. By contrast, many Australian podcasts draw heavily on the work of coroners, combined with lengthy interviews with grieving relatives, retired cops and lawyers, and the windfalls of “shaking the tree” to see what emerges after the podcast’s first couple of episodes.

The path to The Teacher’s Pet was laid a year earlier by Trace, the ABC’s first true crime podcast and the first Australian one to become a talking point. Its stunning first episode details how, one morning in mid 1980, Maria James cried out and then went silent during a phone call to her ex-husband. He raced to her suburban bookshop and discovered his wife’s bound and stabbed body, as the culprit fled the scene. The investigation’s former head tells reporter Rachael Brown of multiple persons of interest — an ex-lover with an alibi, a loner with blood-stained trousers, a crush who suicided days later, a garbo who fancied her, a family friend later imprisoned for paedophilia — but she devotes the bulk of her podcast to two local priests, who were later credibly accused of child abuse and have since died.

Brown’s theory, that one of them killed James to cover up their abuse of one of her children, had some support from the evidence in one of the child abuse cases (albeit from decades-late-emerging witness accounts whose credibility she never questions) but none from the other. In the third episode of the original four-episode run, Brown airs a bizarre theory that the priest was secretly a ritual serial killer whose many murders are wholly unknown to authorities. In short, her investigation went off the rails.

Brown’s motives only become apparent when she belatedly tells viewers of her bond with James’s two children, who believe their mother was killed by a priest, and of her goal of giving a voice to them and to victims of institutional child abuse more generally. “How do you remain independent as a storyteller, and not an activist?” asked fellow ABC reporter Will Ockenden in an interview on the ethics of podcasting. “It’s not my responsibility to solve this case,” she replied. “That’s others’ responsibility.”

Trace’s sole claim to actual investigative impact was that it prompted the police to review the file and realise that a DNA sample they thought was the offender’s was actually from another case altogether. But this was a serendipitous finding that Brown never anticipated. Indeed, she spends part of an episode mulling over how to obtain DNA from one of the dead priests, though she later added new episodes speculating that the mix-up was a police cover-up. Last year, Trace scored three Walkley nominations for investigative journalism, audio features and innovation, but only won the latter.

The ABC’s second true crime podcast, Blood on the Tracks, is also a medium for victims’ voices, in this instance the relatives of a teen whose body was found on a country railway track near an overturned stolen car. Reporter Allan Clarke devotes an episode to the relatives’ efforts to accuse an innocent man of killing the teen to hide a drug deal, and advocates their belief throughout that local police were indifferent to the death of an Indigenous boy. But everyone could have seen the final revelation a mile away: the teen was killed in a car crash that was clumsily covered up by other teens.

Some of Clarke’s journalism is pure Today Tonight: “Did you kill him?” he asks one subject, before adding, “We’ll tell you his answer later in the episode.” (The answer turns out to be, “No, I don’t even know him.”) A later episode records his pursuit of the victim’s former girlfriend down a small town street as she desperately tries to get away. (He later received a lawyer’s letter telling him to keep clear.) Blood on the Tracks also won a Walkley last week, for coverage of Indigenous affairs.

Thankfully, the ABC’s third true crime podcast, Barrenjoey Road, avoids these journalistic missteps. Ruby Jones and Neil Mercer fully investigate the case — another woman who disappeared from Sydney’s Northern Beaches in the early 1980s — without victim- or police-prompted tunnel vision, exploring multiple possible suspects with an open mind and exposing genuine links to proven police corruption. Also this year, a non-ABC podcast showed how to tell a personal crime tale in a way that is deeply sensitive to an Indigenous murder victim and to the nature of domestic violence. In my view, Nina Young’s My Father, the Murderer is easily Australia’s best true crime podcast.

And yet The Teacher’s Pet is the podcast the Walkley judges chose for their highest accolades, even though its production values are far lower than any of its predecessors and its fourteen episodes — the latter ones exceeding ninety minutes each — are repetitive and longwinded. Why? Impact. Of three sorts.

First, the judges explained, Thomas’s “investigation uncovered long-lost statements and new witnesses.” Aside from her husband’s handwritten statement, the new evidence about Lyn Dawson’s disappearance consists of decades-delayed revelations from family, neighbours, friends and acquaintances, each apologetic for not saying anything earlier about Chris Dawson’s allegedly odd behaviour or the bruises on his wife’s arms. The podcast also prompted a string of former students of Northern Beaches high schools to describe a culture of sexual misconduct by the teachers there.

While the latter revelations led the NSW police to form “Strike Force Southwood” to investigate, Thomas’s sensibility — exemplified by the podcast’s coquettish nickname for the student whose accounts of abuse by the Dawsons were repeatedly aired — is the opposite of contemporary concerns about sexual abuse of children. Moreover, nearly all of this new evidence has a common flaw: it was generated not by Thomas’s gumshoeing but by the podcast itself. If any high school teachers, or Dawson himself, are eventually prosecuted, they can compellingly argue that the new statements are distortions or fabrications prompted by Thomas’s own lurid claims of weird twins, grooming gangs and police cover-ups.

The podcast’s second impact, “prompting police to dig again for the body of Lyn Dawson” at the couple’s former matrimonial home, was clearly Thomas’s ultimate goal. Throughout the series, he painstakingly details the Dawsons’ wooded Bayview property and the landscaping that accompanied and followed Lyn Dawson’s disappearance. He notes Dawson’s supposedly bizarre behaviour of driving past his old home on return trips to Sydney and pointedly criticises earlier police digs for failing to explore some “soft soil” later concreted over, dismissing their claims that searching for human remains is a typically fruitless task.

Here, Thomas’s arguments tapped into the NSW law-and-order cycle. Radio presenter Ben Fordham came on board his campaign and predictably extracted an on-air apology from the state police commissioner for his predecessors’ failings. As the podcast closed, a team of officers spent five days digging up parts of the property. Had they found human remains, Thomas could rightly claim the credit. By the same token, he must take the credit for handing Dawson yet another powerful argument if his case ever comes to trial — why didn’t the police find any human remains at his former property?

Did the Walkley judges actually listen to all sixteen hours of Thomas’s podcast? I very much doubt it. Rather, it is surely the final impact of The Teacher’s Pet that best explains his second Gold Walkley. The podcast has “more than twenty-seven million downloads at latest count,” the judges gush, and “is the only Australian podcast to go to number 1 in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand.”

In short, Thomas got his Gold Walkley for cracking the international podcast scene. Had he done so via solid journalism or an innovative approach or a startling discovery, that would be fair enough. But the secret to his podcast’s popularity is banal: the spectre of violence combined with lots of sex, even more innuendo and an unwavering certainty that a single theory about an unsolved disappearance is the absolute truth. In other words, Thomas used all the worst tropes of the true crime genre to tap into the overseas market. For this, the Walkley judges feted him as this year’s greatest journalist. With friends like these, the media doesn’t need its many enemies. •