Reassuring face of BBC’s political coverage

John Cole: Nov 23rd, 1927-Nov 7th, 2013


As a labour correspondent, and deputy editor of both the Guardian and the Observer, John Cole, who has died aged 85, was one of the leading print journalists of his generation. However, it was as the BBC’s political editor that he became best known, his nightly appearances on television news, with his pronounced Northern Ireland accent and trademark tweed overcoat making him instantly recognisable wherever he went.

Long after his official retirement, people still approached him to shake his hand – a ritual he accepted with exemplary grace, though both accent and overcoat became at times something of a trial to him.

He did not enjoy the relentless jokes about his Belfast vowels, the Private Eye parodies in which every other paragraph started “hondootedly”. He resented the public school condescension from which they emanated, as if to speak in a Northern Irish accent was somehow quaint or second-class.

Beginning in Belfast
The son of an engineer, George, and his wife, Alice, Cole was educated at Belfast Royal Academy. After school he started as reporter and industrial correspondent with the Belfast Telegraph, and was also for a time reported from Stormont. He was recruited by the Manchester Guardian in 1956 and in the following year posted to London as labour correspondent.

As news editor and later deputy editor of the Guardian, Cole was frequently swimming against the tide, nowhere more so than on Ireland. Opposing simple “solutions” offered by other journalists, such as British withdrawal followed by reunification, Cole insisted that Protestants too had rights that a paper with the Guardian’s liberal traditions ought to respect. However, even those who agreed with him were dismayed when the paper, through its leader columns, supported internment.

Ireland may have been a factor in him losing out to Peter Preston when the editorship became vacant in 1975. But it was not the conclusive factor. Many on the commercial side thought him too old-fashioned to run a late 20th-century newspaper. There was also unease about his clear allegiance to the Labour party.

However, while he did not hide his sympathies in the editorials he wrote, Cole was never slow either to assail Labour when the Guardian’s world view seemed to require it.

Preston invited him to stay on as his deputy but he went to the Observer, where he remained for six years. In 1981, he went to the BBC as political editor, a post in which he revolutionised the routine broadcast reporting of politics, speaking to the camera with a directness, and readiness to commit himself, which was more common among newspaper journalists.

Horror of unemployment
That is not to say that he allowed his private opinions, strong as they invariably were, to intrude into what he reported. Anyone who talked to him knew what he believed in.

For him, a supreme political issue, from his earliest reporting days in Belfast, was unemployment and the way it laid waste to lives. He would listen, impatience boiling only just beneath his professional courtesy, to those who explained that keeping people out of work was an unpleasant but necessary aspect of counter-inflationary policy.

Again refusing to succumb to the dictates of fashion, he remained convinced of the worth and the necessity of trade unions. He was affronted by those who viewed working men and women in free association as enemies of the people. That put him on the opposite side of the argument to the Thatcher governments of his BBC years. But such was his scrupulousness and fairness as a reporter that few were found to traduce the political editor of what some Tories liked to call the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation.

His official retirement in 1992 gave him time to get back to writing. This was a real relief, for the soundbite constraints of broadcast news often left him frustrated, bursting to develop a case in a less perfunctory way.

Political bestsellers
After leaving the Guardian, he had written a book on third world development. In 1987 he published a study of Mrs Thatcher’s first two terms. As It Seemed to Me (1995), a kind of cross between a political notebook and an autobiography, became a bestseller and in 2001 he published a Northern Ireland novel, A Clouded Peace.

A committed and active Christian, Cole was, however, far from a puritanical man, or even one obsessed with his work.

He loved entertaining, going to parties, gossiping, setting the world to rights over a late-night drink, and the company of his wife, Madge.

He is survived by Madge, their four sons, Donald, Patrick, David and Michael, and nine grandchildren.