Honest John

What is the reason for John Cole's 'love affair' with politicians? Why does he believe them to be fundamentally decent? James Rampton grilled him on 50 years at Westminster

john cole is very much his own man. How else could he have got away for so many years with That Coat? Anyone else would have been collared long ago by the BBC Image Police for wearing such a naff herringbone number come rain or shine. "He didn't give a damn what the BBC types thought about it," laughs David Wilson, the producer of A Progress through Politics, Cole's appealing leaf through his scrapbook of 50 years on the political beat. Three years after retiring as the BBC's Political Editor, Cole is still wearing it as he stalks his old hunting ground of College Green and Downing Street for the documentary.

More importantly, he is still held in enormous affection by viewers. What else could explain the sale of 25,000 copies of his memoirs, As It Seemed to Me? The book has remained in the Sunday Times Top 10 Bestsellers List since it was published at the beginning of April. On promotional tours around the country, Cole has been mobbed as if he were the lead singer of Take That - albeit in a funny coat. It's enough to make you think that politics is the new rock'n'roll. Robin Oakley - his successor as the BBC's Political Editor - had an impossible act to follow. So just why is Cole still famous enough to be regularly accosted by what he calls "the green ink brigade" on the Tube? Why is he esteemed so long after he has stopped receiving the oxygen of publicity generated by almost daily television appearances?

Wilson puts it down to a rather outdated concept in both journalism and politics: "I don't want to sound too much like a form teacher, but he's transparently honest, that shines through. He's a very moral man, upright in a rather old-fashioned way. Maybe that comes from his branch of Protestantism, Presbyterianism. He isn't a table-banging Paisleyite, he's much more like Cromwell - 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.' He's striving to do the right thing - a 17th-century Protestant ideal."

In political interviews, Cole certainly played it straight, neither adopting the bully-boy tactics of a Paxman nor bowing and scraping a la David Frost. In one memorable exchange in the film, Cole takes issue with Geoffrey Howe over unemployment. "I was riveted," Wilson remembers. "There was John telling a former Foreign Secretary and Chancellor, 'It's just not good enough'. Geoffrey was perfectly happy afterwards because he knew where John was coming from. He wasn't just there to ambush Geoffrey. Politicians trust John. He never reveals his sources. They talk to him because he would never say where the bodies are buried."

Cole's outmoded sense of fair play even extends to the virtually unthinkable: he believes most politicians are fundamentally decent. Forrest Gump's doctor catches the prevailing mood when he says at the beginning of that film that Gump's back is "as crooked as a politician".

"I don't share the view that all politicians are crooks, as bad as estate agents, or even journalists," Cole muses down the line between book-signings and Harold Wilson obituaries last week."Most politicians come in with a sense of idealism. They make inevitable compromises - the party system imposes compromise - but most of them retain a reasonable amount of their original intention to do good. Frankly, compared to other jobs, the money and the working conditions of an MP are not such as to be terribly attractive, so I must assume they have a sense of public purpose.

"I do also find them amusing company," he continues in this unfashionable vein. "I'd prefer to be reporting the doings of politicians rather than those of City men or businessmen. Some of them are wise, too - and I don't widely use the word wisdom. Harold Wilson made many mistakes, but when you were just sitting and chatting to him about ordinary things, you were always getting sound advice. You wouldn't necessarily say that of everybody you met on the Tube. That's the reason for my love affair with the species."

Not that he's lived happily ever after with every politician. "Broadcasting is all on the record, and that's where awkwardness can come in," Cole explains. "You're asking politicans to do things they may not think are to their advantage. Gerald Kaufmann, for instance, makes his own rules about broadcasting. He doesn't like entrusting himself to soundbite-ism, to the fact that I choose 45 seconds from a 10-minute interview with him. The more suspicious want to set the agenda. Gerald can be awkward in that respect."

Mrs Thatcher could be awkward too - no surprises there - but Cole did once succeed in catching her off-guard. "The difficulty about interviewing her," he reflects, "was that she was the supreme professional. You had to work hard to get news out of her. I was once walking over to No 10 with Glyn Mathias from ITN, and he said, 'What questions are you going to ask her?' I said, 'If you ask her about the weather and I ask her about her horoscope, we'll both get the same answer: Government economic policies are working.' You had to surprise her, get under her guard. When I interviewed her after she'd announced the 1987 election, she was burying me in statistics when I saw a chink for an old man to ask a woman no longer in the first flush of youth whether this would be her last election. She replied, 'Oh no, I intend to go on and on and on.' This was not such welcome news to some of the electorate, nor to some of her younger colleagues. Kenneth Baker said in his memoirs that she regretted it."

Those are the sort of moments for which Cole will be remembered. For an apparently untelegenic older man - he's now 67 - with a wiry hairdo and bottle-bottom glasses, he had tremendous presence. His appearance with a microphone outside No 10 always guaranteed compelling viewing. This was allied to a cogency not always manifest in political reporters. In his own phrase, Cole aimed to provide "politics for grown-ups". Cole was also immune to Westminster Fever. "When things got paranoiac during Mrs Thatcher's time," Wilson says, "John always kept his feet on the ground. That's why he kept ahead of the pack in Thatcher's leadership crisis - journalistically his finest hour - because he was rooted in real politics."

We could not, of course, close this bulletin without mentioning Cole's accent, the harsh Ulster brogue so incessantly sent up by Spitting Image, Private Eye's "Hondootedly" column and countless budding impressionists. As with everything, Cole is sanguine about being a figure of fun."I don't object - that would be too strong - but I do find it ludicrous that when we're nearly in the 21st century, people around this diverse country of ours are still surprised to hear a Scots, Geordie or Irish accent rather than Received Pronunciation English."

Even on the subject of his mockers, though, Cole manages to deliver a rallying-cry for a Cromwellian sense of decency. "The Spitting Image puppets are good, and the impressions are OK, but they haven't a political thought in their heads. I don't think those guys believe in anything. It's the same with Private Eye. If you believed Private Eye's politics, you'd be looking for a guy on a white charger to ride in and rescue you. We already had him. He was called Mussolini."

'A Progress through Politics', Sun 9.10pm BBC2

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition