1967 - | Queensland | Investigative journalist
Thomas is one of Queensland’s most consistent newsbreakers, a dogged investigative journalist and one of Australia’s most controversial campaigners in the early years of the 21st century. He won the 2007 Gold Walkley for his exposure of the police pursuit of Mohamed Haneef, an innocent doctor accused of being a terrorist. In 2010, Thomas wrote a series of articles linking Dr Jayant Patel with numerous deaths at Bundaberg Hospital. He was criticised by media rivals for his relentless pursuit of Dr Gillian Triggs for her performance as head of the Australian Human Rights Commission and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard over financial deals with a union official when she was a young lawyer, but his editors backed him all the way.
Hedley Thomas sees himself as a journalistic outsider, believing this is one of the qualities that has helped him stand against the power of the Australian Federal Police, a prime minister, a State treasurer, a chief magistrate, an entire State health bureaucracy, a billionaire politician and the NSW Police Service and Director of Public Prosecutions.
Not for Thomas the parcelled-up drops from police, lawyers and whistleblowers that are so often the driving force behind big journalism awards. He has come to most of his big stories with an insatiable curiosity, no pre-conceived notions and no vested interests in the form of contacts he seeks to protect.
Whether it be his first Walkley for "Netbet" in Brisbane in 1999 (about a group of Labor mates led by then State Treasurer David Hamill awarding themselves an exclusive internet gambling licence), his Gold Walkley for a series about the AFP and their bungled pursuit of Dr Mohamed Haneef or his dogged two-year pursuit of the Julia Gillard-AWU slush fund series, Thomas came to all his big stories with an open mind.
He began his career at the Gold Coast Bulletin as a copy boy aged 17. It was the last year of typewriters and copy paper so he experienced journalism in its original incarnation before computers.
After receiving his cadetship the following year, 1985, he befriended Paul Whittaker, later to become editor-in-chief of The Australian and his brother-in-law (Whittaker is married to Thomas's sister). The pair were so competitive they would often head to the print plant at night to get early copies of the paper off the press so they could see where their stories had been placed.
Thomas recalled: "Boris (Whittaker's nickname because he is a keen tennis player and looked like Boris Becker) was a young bloke with a bit of attitude and we became flatmates and firm friends. We would tear down to get the papers and head home to go through them over a few beers, bagging whoever had not put our yarns on the front page."
He left the "Bully" for the Courier-Mail in May 1988 and stayed for a year under editor Greg Chamberlin, who appointed him to the News Corp London Bureau a year later. "I thought I must be pretty good getting a posting like that but it was only when I got there that the late and great James McCullough, formerly of The Oz and The Courier, told me I was sent because I was the cheapest candidate available," Thomas recalls.
He was there for two momentous years coinciding with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and worked with such brilliant correspondents as Nicolas Rothwell and Bruce Wilson. He returned to Brisbane with the Courier in 1991.
Thomas met wife-to-be Ruth Mathewson, also a journalist, at the end of 1992 at a Christmas party. They fell in love but after a month she told him: "It's been great but I am off to Hong Kong for a job."
So Thomas thought he had better go too: “It was April 1993 and I was in Hong Kong for six years. Initially it was at The Hong Kong Standard but six months later David Armstrong (former editor of The Australian) conducted a lightning strike on the Standard from the bigger South China Morning Post, picking up four reporters. I was lucky to be there when that sort of competition for staff was happening."
Thomas came back to the Courier in 1999. Initially, he worked in the features department but soon had a hunch looking online at a proposed internet gambling licence: "I went around the corner and told Boris at Mi5 (the paper's Investigations Unit) I had this idea. He and I worked on it and we shared the Walkley for best investigation."
He also won for the “Doctor Death” Bundaberg hospital scandal and for a feature on Chief Magistrate Di Fingleton who was subsequently jailed. He revealed that an Indian-born American doctor, Jayant Patel, had been conducting surgery at Bundaberg Base Hospital for which he was not qualified and in which at least 87 patients died. Fingleton was jailed for the offence of intimidation of a witness, a conviction eventually overturned in the High Court. The issue concerned a dispute with a fellow magistrate.
Three of his most compelling stories - and three of the most difficult to prosecute - did not receive deserved acknowledgement. All were either bad for sitting Labor leaders or threatened to help a conservative leader.
The first, his long series on the 2011 Wivenhoe Dam flood, was so powerful it forced the cancellation of a planned early election by then Labor Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and ensured a judicial commission of inquiry that had already finished its hearings had to reconvene.
The other two stories overlooked were the Australian Workers Union slush fund series and the reporting of Clive Palmer's business and political decline after his entry into Federal Parliament in 2013. The AWU stories, which concerned work Gillard did for her former lover, Bruce Wilson, when she worked as a solicitor for Slater and Gordon, were a problem for the then Gillard Labor Government.
While Thomas is widely regarded as a fearless reporter he knows fear better than most journalists ever will.
In October 2002 while he lay almost asleep in the outer western Brisbane house that has been the Thomas family home for 20 years, someone fired four shots at the house. One of the bullets went through the bedroom window about 30cm above the heads of Thomas and his wife.
"There is no question we were really rocked by that and for some time after that I had a lot of difficulty functioning as a journalist and a father,” Thomas says. He narrowed the potential shooter down to three or four stories he had written but decided to let it go.
Thomas spent much of 2018 on the breakthrough series The Teacher's Pet, about the murder of Sydney Northern Beaches mum Lyn Dawson 36 years ago. It revealed many flaws in the police investigation and the handling of the case by the DPP and won vast numbers of podcast downloads.
Chris Mitchell is a media commentator and former editor-in-chief of The Australian and Queensland Newspapers.
Hedley Thomas at a murder scene during his time as police rounds reporter for the Gold Coast Bulletin, circa 1987. Courtesy of News Corp
Paul 'Boris' Whittaker and Thomas. "The pair were so competitive they would often head to the print plant at night to get early copies of the paper off the press so they could see where their stories had been placed." Courtesy of Hedley Thomas
Former Australian's Europe correspondent Nicolas Rothwell and Hedley. Courtesy of News Corp
Thomas won a Walkley for his investigation of Dr Jayant Patel and his reign of terror at Bundaberg hospital. Courtesy of News Corp
His investigation of the AFP's bungled pursuit of Muhamed Haneef earned Thomas a Gold Walkley. Courtesy of SMH
Paul 'Boris' Whittaker, Rupert Murdoch and Hedley Thomas. Courtesy of News Corp
Making Headlines, Chris Mitchell, Melbourne University Press, 2016
'The Teacher's Pet' podcast, The Australian, 2018
Transcript, Patel v The Queen, High Court of Australia, 2012