Inside Story

The podcast’s trial

Did The Teacher’s Pet hinder the conviction of Chris Dawson?

Jeremy Gans 4 September 2022 3698 words

“Egregious interference”: the Australian’s Hedley Thomas outside the Supreme Court of New South Wales last Tuesday.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Chris Dawson spent what may be his last hours of freedom listening to yet another deep dive into the mystery of his first wife’s disappearance. An earlier, much longer effort had foreshadowed its answer at the start of each episode:

HEDLEY THOMAS: This is episode… of The Teacher’s Pet. Listeners are advised, this podcast contains coarse language and adult themes. This podcast series is brought to you by the Australian.

NEWS PRESENTER: Lynette Dawson was reported missing by her husband, former Newtown Jets Rugby League star, Chris Dawson.

JC: He said, I was going to get a hit man to kill Lyn, and he rang me and said, Lyn’s gone. She isn’t coming back.

JULIE ANDREW: I just want justice, and I’d love her little girls to know she didn’t leave them.

Streamed at length to tens of thousands of viewers last Tuesday via YouTube, Justice Ian Harrison twice dropped big hints about his answer to the mystery. At the eighteen-minute mark he declared himself satisfied that the high school teacher lied when he claimed that Lynette told him she had left him. At the seventy-four-minute mark he took the view that the little girls’ mother didn’t voluntarily leave them.

And yet the judge took nearly four more hours to get to his verdict, for the same reason that Hedley Thomas took an entire podcast series to hammer home his. He had to deal with the string of Dawson’s contemporaries who have come forward to denounce the ex-footballer as a violent creep who routinely abused his wife and was looking for criminals willing to do worse.

At the end of his podcast’s initial run, Thomas told 60 Minutes that he believed his informants’ account of the accused. Dawson “is a despicable person; I think he’s severely narcissistic,” he said. “I think that he’s dangerous.” Tuesday’s twist was that Harrison disagreed, finding that most of those belated testimonies were lies, embellishments or irrelevant, and instead holding — to audible gasps from the public gallery — that Dawson “is a person of prior good character.”

The judge specifically rejected multiple reports that the ex-footballer had struck or choked or threatened his wife, and dismissed the notion, proposed by the prosecution, that he had any tendencies, motivations or animosity towards her that were relevant to the murder trial.

Where does that leave Thomas’s podcast? Before I answer that, I should set out my own take on the journalist’s view that Dawson is a murderer, which I summed up in Inside Story four years ago:

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.

That “hardly any evidence” I mentioned? That’s exactly what Dawson’s judge relied on to reach his guilty verdict.

But what swayed Harrison wasn’t Chris Dawson’s character; rather, it was his wife Lyn’s. He firmly rejected as gendered and unfair any assumption that women never abandon their children. After all, everyone accepted that a Dawson in-law had done just that decades before Lyn vanished. But he did accept what nearly everyone said about Lyn Dawson: that it was absurd to think that someone with close family and friends who had little money of her own and couldn’t drive — someone who was trying to salvage her failing marriage — would suddenly and permanently “propel herself into a life of anonymity in a figurative state of nakedness.” It was still less likely that she’d keep only her unfaithful husband in the loop, and tersely, as he repeatedly claimed. Hence, Harrison’s findings that Lyn died and Chris lied.

That wasn’t enough to convict, though. The judge accepted that he needed to find a convincing reason why an otherwise non-abusive relationship would end with one spouse killing the other. The reason, of course, was the former schoolgirl, now in her fifties and referred to as JC, who told the court that Dawson had groomed her while teaching at her school, culminating in what Dawson later termed an “affair.”

But even that didn’t suffice to explain a murder, Harrison said, noting that affairs and failed marriages are commonplace. To the judge, it was clear that Dawson had plenty of better ways to leave his wife for JC and no good reason, financial or otherwise, to substitute a teenager for Lyn as his young children’s effective mother.

What killed Lyn, Harrison decided, was her husband’s jealousy. His obsession with the student eventually focused on her relationships with people her age, he said, especially when the teen left him for a beachside holiday a week before his wife disappeared. The upshot: “I am satisfied that the prospect that he would lose JC so distressed, frustrated and ultimately overwhelmed him that, tortured by her absence up north, Mr Dawson resolved to kill his wife.”

And so he did, Harrison found. Then, after faking a phone call to a local pool for cover, Dawson disposed of his wife’s body and phoned JC to tell her: “Lyn’s gone. She isn’t coming back. Come back to Sydney and help me look after the children and be with me.”

Whether an appeal court agrees with that theory remains to be seen. But Harrison’s take vindicates a central theme of Thomas’s podcast: that the former footballer’s day in court should have come decades earlier. Nearly all of the evidence the judge relied on was known to the police by the early nineties, when Dawson’s second marriage — to JC — ended. (In response to the defence’s claim that the story JC gave the police was invented to advance a custody dispute with Dawson, Harrison pointedly observed that JC herself was “only a child” when Lyn vanished.)

If Harrison’s reasoning is right, then so were the two coroners who recommended prosecution in the early 2000s. Seemingly in the wrong were lackadaisical cops during the eighties and nineties, former prosecutor Nicholas Cowdery (who repeatedly refused to bring the murder charge)… and me.

Does that mean the Walkley Foundation’s judges were right to call Hedley Thomas’s podcast “a masterclass in investigative journalism”? Several other judges have firmly said no. “I have listened to the podcast,” wrote the then chief justice of New South Wales, Tom Bathurst, a year ago, “and regard its object was to incite prejudice against [Chris Dawson] in a sensationalist fashion.” This was no idle review by Bathurst, who sat alongside two other judges. The septuagenarian Dawson spent the pandemic asking multiple courts to stop his murder prosecution in its tracks, citing the coldness of the case against him, the incompetence and bias of police who investigated him and, above all, the impact of the podcast.

Thomas was required to hand over most of his notes and interviews to Dawson and the court. This May (after a suppression order was lifted) we learnt how this particular sausage was made. Part of that story was Thomas’s approach, near the start of 2018, to a former solicitor, Rebecca Hazel, who had met JC by chance a decade earlier. In the years since, Hazel had developed a warm friendship with JC and was writing a book, The Schoolgirl, Her Teacher and His Wife. Thomas convinced Hazel that her book and his podcast — which he had started work on a few months earlier — should be published in unison.

Hazel later ruminated to the court that Thomas’s real interest was in her hard-won contacts. Her friendship with JC suffered after the now fifty-four-year-old eventually decided she wanted nothing to do with Thomas’s podcast. Until the deal collapsed, though, Hazel sat in with Thomas’s interviews. She told the courts that his journalistic style — which commenced by telling his interviewees that Dawson was a killer — left her uncomfortable.

It made the judges uncomfortable too, as did the revelation that those words of JC’s that opened each podcast episode — and gave the impression that Dawson told her that he’d hired a hitman who caused Lyn to disappear — were stitched together from two entirely separate remarks. Worse still was Thomas’s convincing of most of Hazel’s contacts — Lyn Dawson’s grieving family, some coronial inquest witnesses and, incredibly, Chris Dawson’s family lawyer and one of the coroners (both of whom were magistrates by then) — to endorse the podcast or even publicly condemn a murder suspect under active investigation.

And then there was the podcast’s attack on then director of public prosecutions Lloyd Babb, who attended Dawson’s school, even though Thomas was well aware that Babb would play no role in the charging decision. Elizabeth Fullerton, the judge who heard the whole pre-trial application, held that the journalist “deliberately raised the false spectre of impropriety” just to put more pressure on the prosecutor assigned to the case. After Thomas spent days on her witness stand, the judge observed that he “gave no indication that he had gained any insight into the damage he has done… and no obvious awakening of his ethical role as a journalist.”

Nor has he since. After Dawson was found guilty, Thomas publicly claimed (citing “senior lawyers” and “former and current police officers”) that his podcast was “a factor in the DPP’s decision to prosecute.” Thomas had said as much to Justice Fullerton, telling her he thought “public pressure” from his podcast and Lyn’s family “might cause the DPP to look at something properly,” a statement she labelled “breathtaking” and something the prosecutors have always denied (including just last week).

Fullerton found that the brief of evidence the prosecution accepted was actually completed six months before Thomas started working on the podcast and sent to prosecutors a month before its launch. Notably, that brief already included Thomas’s supposedly biggest discovery, a 1982 missing person report supplied by Dawson. The cops had found that previously lost statement in 2015, three years before Thomas’s announcement on his podcast that he had been handed it by an “unlikely source.” (Weeks later, he said he got it from the ombudsman.)

To be sure, it’s all too easy to imagine the prosecutors buckling under the public pressure, and Dawson’s lawyers argued that any such perception was itself poisonous. After all, Thomas claimed throughout his podcast that he had “new evidence” for the police. (Justice Fullerton found that he actually had “little” that the investigators didn’t already have.)

Added to that, a Sydney radio personality had publicly convinced the then police commissioner to order his investigators to speak with Thomas. (Fullerton fretted that the commissioner himself was trying to influence the prosecutors, but opted for the kinder conclusion that he was just fooled by Thomas’s bluster.)

And, of course, the decision to charge Dawson came mere days after the podcast’s Gold Walkley. (It was also weeks after extensive digging at the former matrimonial home, at Thomas’s behest, uncovering nothing. A dirty cardigan previously found there was one of many pieces of evidence ballyhooed on the podcast that went unmentioned in the judge’s reasons.)

But, while it’s unlikely that The Teacher’s Pet prompted a murder trial, neither did it stop one. The courts rejected all of Dawson’s arguments that he couldn’t be properly tried, albeit by a whisker. Nevertheless, Hedley Thomas can clearly claim credit for some things.

For starters, he delayed Dawson’s trial by several years, with the courts ordering a pause until mid 2021 (in the hope that Sydney’s jurors would somehow forget Thomas’s podcast ever existed) and the High Court adding nine more months before it decided not to hear a further appeal from Dawson based on the lower courts’ criticisms of the podcast.

The podcast was also the main reason Dawson’s fate was put in the hands of a judge rather than a jury, after the Supreme Court ruled this would avoid the difficult and potentially impossible task of finding twelve jurors who were untouched by Thomas’s podcast. (Judge Harrison assured all that he had never partaken.)

Dawson’s prosecutors had wanted a jury trial regardless, perhaps worrying — rightly as it turns out — that a judge would dismiss most of the character evidence but also — wrongly as it turns out — that such a judge would then acquit. The result is that, instead of an inscrutable jury pronouncement, we now have detailed reasons — over 700 paragraphs of them — for why Dawson is now in jail.

One thing those reasons reveal (which a jury trial wouldn’t have) is the exact impact the podcast had on the verdict. Four years ago, I wrote, of the podcast’s revelations:

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 arm… [N]early all of this new evidence has a common flaw: it was generated not by Thomas’s gumshoeing but by the podcast itself. If [Dawson is] eventually prosecuted, [he] can compellingly argue that the new statements are distortions or fabrications prompted by Thomas’s own lurid claims.

And that’s what Dawson’s barrister, Pauline David, did. It was her only successful argument.

In the middle hours of his reasons, Harrison threw out virtually every witness Thomas uncovered or even spoke with at length — from the man who claimed Dawson asked him to find a hitman, to witnesses who claimed to have seen bruises on Lyn’s arms or throat, or heard her describe being choked or pushed in the mud — unless they had given the same account to the police well before they were interviewed for the podcast. He likewise threw out every defence witness who had seemingly only come forward because of all the publicity.

In short, The Teacher’s Pet stopped both sides from usefully investigating Lyn’s disappearance after the start of 2018. At his trial, Dawson’s lawyer argued that this hindrance, plus the police’s failure to gather key documents, since lost, or to speak with key witnesses, since deceased, and the delays that prevented Dawson doing the same, left him at an unfair disadvantage. Harrison disagreed, noting that his prosecutors were just as affected. Again, it remains to be seen whether Dawson’s appeal judges will agree.

Last May, a new Chris Dawson podcast launched:

JOURNALIST: Happy that finally it’s under way now?

CHRIS DAWSON: Yes, very happy.

HEDLEY THOMAS: My name is Hedley Thomas and I’m a journalist with a particular interest in podcast investigations into the alleged murders of women in Australia. This is the first episode of our new podcast series, The Teacher’s Trial.

This is Hedley Thomas’s fourth entry in the medium. His second and third podcasts followed the formula of his first. The Night Driver, which identified multiple possible suspects in the disappearance of Bathurst’s Janine Vaughan, failed to go viral. He had more success with Shandee’s Story, which reinvestigated a man acquitted of murdering his titular ex in Mackay and, like the ABC’s Trace, prompted an inquiry into the handling of DNA evidence.

His latest effort mimics a different one from Thomas’s newspaper. Yuendumu’s daily recaps of the trial of NT police officer Zachary Rolfe were a landmark in national court reporting, brilliantly letting interested people closely follow a case of enormous public interest, almost the way Americans routinely do. (The pandemic has seen many Australian courts live stream multiple proceedings of public interest, but no criminal trials to date.)

The NT Supreme Court itself took an especially open approach to the Rolfe case, eventually taking the unprecedented, but very welcome, step of publishing the whole trial transcript on its website. Its actions evinced a desire to be as open as possible and a trust in the media’s ability to report on such a sensitive case responsibly. In my view, the mutual trust was rewarded, and achieved a much higher public understanding of Rolfe’s acquittal among supporters and critics of the jury’s decision alike.

If Dawson had faced a jury, it’s doubtful that the NSW courts would have allowed anything similar. Justice Fullerton thundered that, had The Teacher’s Pet been published after the murder charge was laid, “a number of individuals and publishers would inevitably have been liable and likely convicted of a criminal contempt.” She was horrified that the podcast’s final episodes were published after the former teacher’s arrest, and noted that the prosecutors initially asked to vet The Night Driver in case Thomas somehow added to his errors. The Teacher’s Pet was eventually pulled from local sites and the media were banned from even mentioning the podcast’s name until this year.

But the ruling that gave Justice Harrison the jury’s role — itself prompted by The Teacher’s Pet — made The Teacher’s Trial possible. We’re better off for the coverage it provided. I’ve little doubt that reporters Matthew Condon, Claire Harvey and David Murray shared their co-host’s view about Dawson’s guilt, but it was refreshing to hear them refrain from stating it. Instead, their podcast gave detailed but fair summaries — sometimes even with counterarguments — of the prosecution’s evolving arguments and evidence, alongside balanced, expert reflections on the trial process, crime reporting and true crime fandom.

The different tone has any number of possible explanations. Attending every day in the courtroom, the journalists may have picked up the rhythms of a real trial, which — unlike Thomas’s parody — alternates between arguments and responses on each and every piece of evidence. And they would have been well aware that, much as Dawson and his family once recognised, their every word could end up being raised in court.

Dawson was also able to keep Thomas himself out of the courtroom for much of the trial by having prosecutors promise to call him to testify. (Thomas’s testimony turned out to be a very muted reprise of his testimony at the pre-trial hearing. The defence instead relied on a transcript of Thomas’s earlier testimony, and even a couple of podcast episodes, to convince Harrison of the journalist’s impact on the evidence.)

That meant Thomas was reduced to a background role on his own podcast. In an early episode, he responded to some of Justice Fullerton’s findings, expressing bafflement at her critique of how he edited JC’s words and defending the media’s role in exposing official failings. He played a greater role — albeit still somewhat muted — after he testified, and even issued a belated apology of sorts to JC days before Harrison’s verdict.

At Dawson’s murder trial, JC repeatedly objected to any reference to her “relationship” with Dawson — and even her later marriage to him — describing it instead as “grooming.” In response, Thomas said he no longer felt comfortable with having referred to JC as Dawson’s “teenage lover” in his earlier podcast. He invited advocate Nina Funnell onto The Teacher’s Trial to explain how Grace Tame had endured the use of the terms “affair” or “tryst” or (in court) “maintaining a sexual relationship” to describe her years of abuse by her teacher.

But no one — not Thomas, not his co-hosts, not Funnell — mentioned the elephant in the room. How do any of these people think Grace Tame would have felt if someone made a hit podcast about her case and called it The Teacher’s Pet? (Last week, the Australian proudly celebrated Dawson’s conviction by re-releasing all twenty episodes of the 2018 Gold Walkley winner.)

Like George Pell’s case before it, Chris Dawson’s is now on a path to an eventual finale in Australia’s High Court. Much may turn on Ian Harrison’s pre-trial rulings on the admissibility of evidence, which are yet to be published.

In the meantime, let me venture a different prediction: there’ll never be a podcast like The Teacher’s Pet again. This isn’t my hope speaking — though there is that — but rather the courts. Alongside his second Walkley, Thomas can now lay claim to Justice Fullerton’s prize for “the most egregious example of media interference with a criminal trial process which this Court has had to consider.”

When Elizabeth Fullerton spoke these words, she was well aware that they would fall on Thomas’s deaf ears, but she had a different audience in mind. She had pointedly asked the journalist what legal advice he had sought about the podcast, only to be interrupted by a News Ltd lawyer who claimed privilege. She later pondered what would be worse: Thomas choosing to go ahead despite his in-house advice, or because of it. She closed her judgement with advice to prosecutors: that they should be more proactive in seeking injunctions against true crime journalism before — perhaps even well before — relevant charges have been laid. She made it clear that she would now be more inclined to grant such requests.

That may be one last thing Thomas can duly claim credit for: the end of media investigations of cases under consideration by prosecutors in New South Wales, and perhaps other states too. But my hope is for something gentler: that Fullerton’s words are not aimed at all true crime journalism, but only the malign sort that Thomas peddles. There is still, in my view, room for podcasts that, like The Teacher’s Trial, offer a semblance of the justice that the courts afforded Dawson this year. •

Note: To correct an inaccuracy, the bolded words were added to the following sentence after publication: “She was horrified that the podcast’s final episodes were published after the former teacher’s arrest, and noted that the prosecutors initially asked to vet The Night Driver in case Thomas somehow added to his errors.”