1922 - 2000 | NSW | Reporter & editor
Adrian Deamer grew up among journalists. His father, Syd, was a legendary editor and co-founder of the Australian Journalists Association. Adrian became the third editor of The Australian in 1969. In this role he brought a new, sharper focus to reporting while involving the paper in national debates ranging from the Vietnam War to arts policy. Under Deamer’s editorship, widely regarded as its best, The Australian grew in confidence and circulation as it became the champion of progressive causes. In 1971 Deamer’s politics led to his sacking but he returned to the newspaper industry as a specialist defamation lawyer for Fairfax and a member of the Australian Press Council.
In the old days, Rupert Murdoch had a way of trying to dominate editors. He would pick up copies of their paper, point to different stories, and insist on knowing about them in detail.
The idea was nonsense, for an editor oversees the edition and delegates more minor decisions, but it was meant to intimidate.
The tactic did not work with Adrian Deamer, editor of The Australian in the late 1960s and early 70s. When Murdoch used it on Deamer, he did not get the answers he wanted. “Christ, Rupert,” Deamer would say. “I don’t know. If you stick around while we’re getting the paper out, you’ll find out that kind of thing.”
Deamer was tough, defiant and independent. He was courageous – and undiplomatic.
The Young Master, as Murdoch was then known within News Limited, wanted to be in control.
Deamer would take the national daily from the edge of failure and create an exciting, innovative newspaper that could claim to be the best paper in the country, a positive force in Australian newspaper journalism. His relationship with Murdoch, however, was bound to be troubled.
Deamer joined The Australian as deputy editor in 1966, less than two years after its launch.
The newspaper was already blazing a trail for a different kind of journalism, concentrating on national politics and policy. But it was a high-risk move by Deamer: he left behind a job as associate editor of the Sun-News Pictorial.
The paper he was joining was small and its finances were shocking. The logistics of distributing a national paper from Canberra were a nightmare and the costs were crippling. In 1965, accounts showed The Australian was losing about 800,000 pounds ($1.6 million) a year. News Limited never filed separate accounts for the paper again.
Deamer arrived at The Australian’s Canberra headquarters from Melbourne early one morning in March 1966. “[I] stood outside this place looking at it,” he once recalled. “I was… thinking, what the hell have I done?”
Deamer was born into a journalistic family on 25 July 1922. His father, Sydney, had been editor of the Melbourne Herald and the Sydney Daily Telegraph.
Adrian Deamer began his career at the Daily Telegraph in 1946. He worked on the Courier Mail and The Age before going to London – and the Daily Express – in 1950. In 1953, he became chief of staff of the Melbourne Herald but returned to London in 1960 to run the bureau there for the Herald and Weekly Times group. Two years later, he was back in Melbourne, with the Sun News-Pictorial.
At The Australian, Deamer was given a free hand to run the paper day-by-day, especially after it moved to Sydney in 1967. He became editor in March 1969. He had a good eye for layout and he knew how to create a paper that had a logistical consistency, edition after edition. He had liberal views (Murdoch would later call him a socialist) but he insisted they should not intrude on the news coverage.
In the staid world of 1960s newspapers, Deamer’s editorship was innovative, even radical.
The Australian covered business seriously, and gave close attention to international news.
The editorial line was liberal and outspoken, especially on such issues as Aboriginal land rights, apartheid and the Vietnam War, with opposition becoming more strident after the My Lai massacre of unarmed civilians, which affected Deamer deeply.
The paper embraced the emerging women’s movement and gave strong coverage to universities and student protests. Its columnists were opinionated – and they included women.
“I was given the most extraordinary freedom,” says Phillip Adams. “There were no limits,” says Julie Rigg. “The only brief was to write for intelligent women.”
Deamer gathered a team of fine writers, including Betty Riddell, Maria Prerauer, Robert Drewe, Peter Smark, Sam Lipksi and Ian Moffitt to give the paper a distinctive quality.
He also hired young people – including Jane Perlez, Paul Kelly, John Newfong (the first Aboriginal staff writer on a major daily), Janet Hawley and Daniela Torsh. Hiring graduates was unpopular with News Limited management but Deamer trusted his young reporters.
Deamer could be alternately charming or pugnacious – verbally and physically; references to legendary editor Harry Gordon as his sparring partner are not merely metaphorical.
He was a man of his own time but he was also in touch with the emerging mood of the nation.
Readers responded. When The Australian moved from Canberra to Sydney, circulation was an estimated 46,000; when it submitted its first official audit five years later, sales were 136,031. Deamer, with the advantage of better distribution, had given the paper strong momentum. He was, however, increasingly at odds with Murdoch.
Marty Dougherty, then a senior sub-editor, says Murdoch once walked into an editorial conference and asked: “Aren’t there any white people to write about?”
The relationship was strained in August 1970 when Murdoch ordered Deamer to sack satirists Phillip Adams and Ray Taylor and restrict cartoonist Bruce Petty. Deamer was shattered but he got Adams reinstated.
The final confrontation came in June 1971, when the Springboks, South Africa’s rugby team and a symbol of apartheid, began an Australian tour. Unions imposed a travel ban but prime minister Billy McMahon offered the team the use of RAAF planes. On June 25, The Australian criticised McMahon in a front-page editorial. It was headed, “Cynical use of RAAF by McMahon” and said he was “not fit to lead the government of this country.”
The placement and content were bold and provocative. Murdoch was furious. He flew from London to Sydney to confront Deamer. “You’re not producing the sort of paper I want,” he said.
Murdoch then offered Deamer any job he wanted in News, except the editorship. Deamer declined and left, taking a year’s salary - $15,000 – as severance pay. He would later say Murdoch complained that The Australian stood for everything he opposed and opposed everything he stood for.
Deamer would go on to study law, becoming legal counsel to the Fairfax group in 1984. Barrister Neil McPhee QC reportedly rated him the best defamation lawyer in Australia.
He retired in 1993 and died of melanoma on 16 January 2000.
He was a pioneer of vibrant, quality journalism, producing newspapers that were engaging in design and content. He was one of the first to recognise that modern newspapers needed depth, analysis, explanation and quality writing if they were to compete with the immediacy of television.
Media commentator Rodney Tiffen says The Australian’s impact on quality newspapers was unequivocally good. Paul Kelly, who also worked in senior roles at Fairfax, says: “Adrian changed Australian journalism. His legacy is immense. Fairfax papers… were deeply influenced by Deamer’s paper.”
Adrian Deamer and The Australian under his editorship are often compared with Graham Perkin and The Age. Both were great editors who produced outstanding newspapers. Deamer, however, deserves a little extra credit for his achievements, as he had to deal with an antagonistic proprietor and do battle within a hard-nosed tabloid culture that saw the newspaper as an indulgence.
David Armstrong was a reporter, editor and media company manager in Australia and Asia. Adrian Deamer hired him from university. In 1989 he became the first journalist to start his career on The Australian to go on to become editor.
Adrian Deamer, editor of The Australian, circa 1966. Courtesy of News Corp/Newspix.
Adrian Deamer and Peter Smark, 1987. Courtesy of Fairfax.
Murdoch’s Flagship: 25 years of The Australian Newspaper, Denis Cryle, Melbourne University Publishing, 2008
The Murdoch Archipelago, Bruce Page, Simon & Schuster UK, 2003
Things you learn along the way: An autobiography, John Menadue, David Lovell Publishing, 1999