Phillip Adams

Phillip Adams

1939-    |    VIC, NSW    |    Columnist & Broadcaster

Adams began writing columns in The Australian in the 1960s, using gentle, mocking humour to discuss the once-taboo subjects of death, atheism and sex. He created a genre. A half a century later, he was still writing a weekly column and hosting a radio current affairs show on ABC Radio National. In between, Adams conceived some of Australia's most memorable advertising jingles and was one of the main forces behind the creation of the modern Australian film industry. Adams won a Walkley for radio journalism, two honours in the Order of Australia and honorary doctorates from five Australian universities.

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Phillip Adams

For any Australian with an interest in national affairs, cultural issues, philosophy and the general cut and thrust of how we live our lives, Phillip Adams has been a strong and consistent voice for more than five decades. A journalist, broadcaster, satirist, advertising executive, film producer and author, the best description of Adams is as a polymath who strolls a diverse path across all public discourse.

And despite the vast technological change he has witnessed across his career, it is his columns in traditional print media that he credits as the central platform of his life work.

“My life as a columnist has been the most important thing,” Adams says. “It enabled everything else. It allowed me to influence three prime ministers in rapid succession to get what I wanted in the film industry. It gave leverage and access and the fact I had a couple of columns each week meant people always took my call and all sides of politics listened.”

At fifteen he left school in Melbourne to begin work with advertising agency Briggs and James. At the same time he joined the Communist Guardian, writing under a pseudonym, and soon started ghost writing for The Bulletin. His role was as a fill in for various art, music and theatre critics who were frequently “unwell” or “tired and emotional”.

His flair with words and individual voice soon saw him employed as a writer at The Bulletin under his own byline. His employment came to an abrupt end when he had a run-in with the editor Donald Horne and was shown the door.

Still in his early 20s, it was the first of many disagreements with a strong headed editor.

A friendship with the cartoonist Bruce Petty (the pair made a film about Vietnam together) led to a column at the The Australian, the newspaper that would provide in many ways the main stage for his career. Adams took over the television criticism column from Kit Denton, a job he describes as “from heaven because Rupert Murdoch didn’t own any television stations so no one gave a shit about what you wrote.”

He became the TV critic who wrote about everything and anything, often with nothing to do with TV at all. At one stage his colleagues suggested a whip around to buy him a television set to help him fulfil his brief.

Editor Adrian Deamer promoted him to a columnist in his own right, not long before Murdoch ordered him sacked for the crime of being a satirist. The media proprietor had been savaged by British broadcaster David Frost during a 1969 interview and demanded of Deamer if The Australian had a satirist on staff. Adams was summarily dismissed as a result.

It was during this period that Adams role as an advocate for the fledgling Australian film industry gained momentum along with his credentials as a producer of feature films. Adams authored a 1969 report into the need for a national film identity and then Prime Minister John Gorton in 1970 duly set up the Australian Film and Television Development Corporation (which became the Australian Film Commission). Under the Whitlam Labor government, Adams and Barry Jones were instrumental in the creation of the Australian Film and Television Radio School. Adams produced films including the The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), Don’s Party (1976) and The Getting of Wisdom (1978).

Simultaneously his advertising career saw him as a partner at the agency Monahan Dayman Adams, a successful publicly listed company that proved lucrative for those involved. MDA developed well known Australian campaigns that include Life – Be In It and Slip, Slop, Slap before Adams left in the 1980s.

But Adams departure from The Australian had not gone unnoticed by readers. In fact his dismissal led to the biggest deluge of letters the newspaper had received since the Vietnam War and Adams was subsequently rehired.

Legendary Age editor Graham Perkin lured him to that newspaper where he was given free rein to cover whatever topic he pleased. This period in the 1970s coincided with the transition within newspapers to what Adams described to Perkin as “views-papers” and the explosion of opinion columns and personal style among journalists.

“I was writing about things newspaper journalists didn’t usually write about; religion, death, meaning, little philosophical treatises usually written you would hope in a self mocking way.”

Following the Fairfax buyout of The Age in 1982, Adams resumed his position with The Australian and has been a columnist with the newspaper ever since. Adams was seen as the token left-wing writer in an increasing field of conservative commentators. And he credits The Australian with being the one publication that has never censored his copy.

The other great constant has been Late Night Live, the flagship ABC Radio National program Adams has hosted since 1991, a role he declares the best in Australian journalism. It remains one of the ABC’s most listened to and downloaded programs, while Adams’ relationship with his listeners, or “gladdies”, is one of the most enduring and endearing of the Australian media landscape.

Adams is an Officer in the Order of Australia, holds four honorary doctorates, one Walkley Award and a swag of other gongs, medals and honours. He is one of Australia’s national living treasurers according to a National Trust poll. As a committed atheist he has traded blows with committed men of the cloth; while as the founder of the Australian Skeptics he has burst the bubble of many crackpots and conmen.

And he has had a minor planet named after him by the International Astronomical Union.

While Adams was slowed in his 70s by a battle against cancer, he remains a titan of Australian thought, ideas and their debate.

Nick Leys was Media Editor at The Australian when commissioned to write this piece. By the time he finished, he was Media Manager at the ABC. He has also worked at the Sydney Morning Herald, The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun.


Portrait of Phillip Adams, by Robert Hannaford. Image courtesy of The Australian.


Courtesy of ABC.