I, like many thousands of others, have recently been immersed in the Australian’s podcast series The Teacher’s Pet. This brainchild of award winning journalist Hedley Thomas charts the disappearance and probable murder of a mother of two on Sydney’s northern beaches in the early 1980s.

As an avid fan of ‘true crime’ television series such as The Staircase, Making a Murders, The Jinx, The Keepers and the irreverent (and fictitious) American Vandal, I expected to embrace this series with similar relish. Surprisingly, however, I found myself guarded about the narrative pushed in this podcast phenomenon.

I suspect my hesitance to fully embrace the series is borne from my own dealings working within the criminal justice system in Australia. More precisely, I couldn’t help myself thinking about the rights of the (likely) defendant and how any future trial may be horribly prejudiced by this (understandably) popular podcast.

Foremost among my concerns was the impact the podcast may have on potential jurors. I would suspect, without being able to prove, that this podcast has been popular with a demographic which can relate to the heady days of the early 1980s. Anecdotally, those Baby Boomers account for the majority of jurors in criminal trials. In other words, this podcast is hitting the exact demographic who may find themselves called upon to pass judgment on Chris Dawson, should he ever be charged and tried.

A journalist is, at the end of at the day, a story teller. Hedley Thomas has told a ripping and compelling yarn but there are times, despite his best intentions, where questions of admissibility are left by the wayside. Of course a juror will only hear evidence which is admissible. They will not hear scores of opinions offered by concerned neighbours or hearsay conversations. Rules of evidence exist to recognise the danger and unreliability of such evidence. A journalist need not make such a distinction.

By populating the podcast with so much innuendo and opinion, which makes for great listening, there is a risk that any potential juror who has followed the podcast or accessed related news content may be exposed to evidence which is ultimately unable to be led at trial. This can lead the juror to base their decision on matters which are not relevant to the case.

Much like Making a Murderer there has been an absence of a competing narrative throughout The Teacher’s Pet. That is no fault of Hedley Thomas who has noted on numerous occasions that the Dawson’s have been given the opportunity to come on record. Quite sensibly, they have not done so. Any criminal lawyer who has ever worked on a case of a historical nature will see the grave risks of taking such a step.

As a result the series pushes an agenda which, in turn, has caused a significant groundswell and justifiable outrage as to the ineptitude of the early investigation and the lack of accountability of the Office of the DPP. The risk to a juror however is that they are being exposed to such a partisan version of events. Such a risk can manifest itself in the onus of proof shifting from the prosecution to the defence.

One can only hope that should a trial ever be reached that the jury will be polled on the knowledge of the podcast and the case generally. Hopefully any potential juror who discloses such an interest should be excused from service. My concern though is that there may be some jurors who play down their interest in the case so as to place themselves in what shapes to be a dynamite trial or that when selected as a jury member, they begin undertaking their own ‘background reading’.

It has been commented on by far more erudite minds than mine that jurors in the current technological age have far more information available to them than jurors in the past. They are far more susceptible to outside influence and the scourge of fake news. If I were acting on behalf of Mr Dawson I would be greatly concerned about the real or perceived risk that the jury pool has been tainted by the popularity of the podcast.

So, that being the case, would it be worthwhile seeking a ‘judge alone’ trial (if a trial is ever reached)? That is a topic for later musings. For now, I think the lesson we can learn is this: the increased interest in true crime reporting is likely to result in the number of truly objective jurors dwindling.


Remy Kurz

29 September 2018