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Journalist and true crime podcaster fights for justice for Australian murder victims

When I was nine months old we returned to Australia, to the country's capital, Canberra, where my father continued to work for the Air Force. I have an older sister, Peta, and two younger sisters, Rebecca and Kate.

Hedley Thomas pins a medal on his father, circa 1977. Photo: Hedley Robert Thomas

Papers, please

I remember as a young child spreading The Australian, the national daily newspaper and the paper I now work for, on the carpet at home while Mum and Dad flicked through it. My younger sister and I would climb over the pages, trying to get their attention.

I have a sneaking suspicion that my interest in becoming a newspaper journalist may have been sparked by my feeling as a young child that this newspaper was special and that I might be attracted to it, too.

The waves are here

When I was 11, my parents separated and then divorcedPerhaps because she wanted a complete change, my mother moved with us children to the Gold Coast in Queensland. I made a good circle of friends there.

I liked the relative informality of the Queensland school system. Unlike in Canberra, where I had to wear long trousers, a blazer and a tie, some of my friends at Surfers Paradise State School wore board shorts and flip flops.

Many of us are still good friends and I am currently helping to organize a 40-year reunion for our high school, which will also include some of our friends from elementary school.

Thomas at a crime scene in 1987 while working as a reporter for the Gold Coast Bulletin. Photo: Hedley Thomas

Errand boy

I graduated from high school at 17. A few days later I started working as an errand boy at the Gold Coast Bulletin (newspaper). The typewriters were still clattering in the newsrooms and for about nine months I ran errands around the building.

I heard the clatter of spoons, which was the editors' signal for me to make them a cup of tea or coffee. I must have shown that I was trying to do more than was required, because they let me start as a second-year cadet, not a first-year one.

I spent the first year and a half in the sports department and then moved to the news department.

Persecution by the police

The editor, John Burton, assigned me to the police force. My job was to assist an experienced reporter named Snezana. She knew all the local police officers who might be of interest to the media.

I was exposed to crime scenes for the first time, participating in the investigation of bank robberies and plane crashes, as well as witnessing horrific trauma on the road in car accidents.

I got used to the police scanner, a handheld device with an antenna and dials that we used to dial into the police, fire and rescue service radio channels. I slept with this squeaking black radio on the pillow next to me.

Thomas and his future wife Ruth Mathewson at the Hong Kong Press Club Ball in 1993. Photo: Hedley Thomas

Curved force

One of the strongest influences on young journalists at that time was a series of stories about Police corruption in Queensland. The push was led by a former judge, Tony Fitzgerald, and came after years of concerns that senior police officers in the state were accepting bribes.

Everyone knew there were illegal casinos and brothels, but how could they operate under the noses of the local police? It took dedicated and courageous journalistic work to expose what was going on.

This led to the establishment of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, which found that the police were extremely corrupt even at the highest levels.

Before all this came out, I knew of an illegal casino in Surfers Paradise above the ice cream and gelato bar. As a young reporter and in the midst of this public debate, I wrote a story about the casino. It was part of an organised crime protection racket scheme, facilitated by the police, and was shut down soon after.

As I gained experience, I followed the excellent journalism exposing police corruption and realised what a difference it could potentially make.

Thomas and Mathewson married in 1995. Photo: Hedley Thomas

London is calling

In 1988 I started working for the broadsheet newspaper The Courier-Mail in Brisbane. I also went on police patrols and wrote investigative stories, and I became more and more confident as a writer.

After a year, the editor offered me a transfer to the London office of all News Limited (now News Corp Australia) newspapers in Australia. I started in June 1989, covering news, sport and the Royal familynot only in Great Britain, but throughout Europe.
The two years I spent there coincided with some significant events, such as the Berlin wall The revolution in Romania and the first Gulf War happened, and I was sent to the Middle East.
Thomas and his wife in Hong Kong in early 1999. Photo: Hedley Thomas

Hello Hong Kong

In 1991 I returned to Brisbane and worked in the newsroom of The Courier-Mail. A friend and colleague, Jason Gagliardi, knew I liked to drink and encouraged me to go to the opening of a new bar in December 1992.

There I met Ruth Mathewson, the Brisbane-based political editor of the Sunday Telegraph in Sydney. We had been together for a few months when she was offered a job in Hong Kong. I didn't want to miss out on her and tried to get a job in Hong Kong.

We both ended up at the Hong Kong Standard. After about five months we were poached by David Armstrong, then editor of the South China Morning Post.

Ruth and I lived in Hong Kong for six years. In 1995 we were married at the registry office in Hong Kong Park and had our wedding reception at the Sai Kung Beach Resort.

We lived in Sai Kung, in the New Territories, in an apartment overlooking Kau Sai Chau Golf Coursewhich was under construction at the time, and after it was finished, I played there regularly.

Our first child, Alexander, was born in Hong Kong in November 1998 and we left the city in the first half of 1999.

Thomas with his wife in Queensland, Australia in 2007. Photo: Hedley Thomas

Return to Oz

Throughout my career I have been fascinated by stories surrounding the criminal justice system, and when we returned to Brisbane I returned to work as a feature writer for The Courier-Mail.

I started writing stories that weren't being reported but that I thought could make a difference, and that led to some early breakthroughs, including a public inquiry into some very shady dealings involving Queensland politicians, an internet casino and child sexual abuse.

Case study

Our daughter Sarah was born in Brisbane in May 2001. That year I also read the story of Lynette Dawson, who disappeared in 1982 and was presumed dead.

An inquest was held in Sydney into her suspected death. Her husband, Chris Dawson, had sexually assaulted a schoolgirl, had sex with her in the family home and then his wife disappeared. He married the schoolgirl.

This culminated in August 2022 with the successful prosecution and conviction of Chris Dawson for murder, 40 years after his wife disappeared without a trace.

Thomas speaks to the media in Sydney, Australia, on August 30, 2022, after Chris Dawson was found guilty of murdering his first wife in 1982. Photo: Getty Images

The work of the pods

The teacher's favorite was a controversial podcast at the time. It reached number 1 (on the iTunes podcast charts) in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and was very successful worldwide. This led me to focus on podcast investigations into unsolved murder cases.

I'm still employed by a traditional newspaper and still write for the paper from time to time, but I'm doing a lot more writing these days because I'm writing hour-long episode scripts after months of researching and interviewing people connected to unsolved murders of Australian women.

Most people who know my name know it because they listen to my podcast.

Listen

Podcasting is incredible for journalism and for experienced journalists who previously worked in print media, it's a godsend at a time when journalism has become much tougher and there are fewer opportunities.

This kind of detailed, carefully researched, in-depth journalism with a focus like mine, where you can potentially make a difference, is incredibly important to listeners.

It arouses enormous interest in the newspaper and its accompanying photos and stories.

Thomas in Australia in 2023. He is working on a new podcast series called Bronwyn. Photo: Hedley Thomas

Give a voice

After The teacher's favoriteI made another one called The Night Driver Series. Then came Shandee's storywhich ended up lasting nearly 40 episodes as the podcast brought to light major revelations and developments, including the fact that DNA tests at crime scenes in Queensland had been tampered with.

I spoke at the Sydney Writers' Festival late last month and received wonderful expressions of gratitude from people who, although not directly connected to the cases I investigated, are grateful that someone is giving a voice to the women who have been injured, murdered and forgotten by the system and hopefully solving their cases.

New leads

I am working on a new podcast series called Bronwyn. Bronwyn Winfield was a young mother who disappeared from a surfing town in New South Wales in 1993. Two episodes have now been released and important clues are already being added as new information comes in. I am confident it will make a difference.