John Cole was not just the best-known political editor in the history of the BBC; he was also the most accomplished. Integrity, fairness and common decency are not the qualities most associated with the world of Westminster, yet he displayed them in abundance, gaining the respect of politicians and - remarkably for a man in that role – the genuine affection of viewers and listeners.
His pronounced Belfast accent – scarcely diluted after half a century as a Londoner – had something to do with establishing his onscreen character, as did the doggedly unfashionable coats he sported when doing his stuff outside 10 Downing Street. They made him an irresistible butt of satirists, but the fundamental reason for his popularity was that audiences could detect that he truly cared about the subjects he was covering.
His 11 years as a broadcaster came at the end of an equally distinguished if lower-profile career in newspapers, principally The Guardian, where he began as an industrial reporter and rose to be deputy editor. “He was a consummate journalist,” said a long-time colleague. “He saw everything in political and industrial terms.”
Born in 1927 in North Belfast, Cole was educated at Belfast Royal Academy, leaving at 18 to become a reporter on the Belfast Telegraph. There he had his first taste of covering industry and politics and also found the time to take an external degree at London University.
In 1956 he married Margaret Williamson, also from Belfast, and the couple almost immediately moved to Manchester, where he had been recruited to what was then still The Manchester Guardian. After a few months he was appointed its labour correspondent. In that era of industrial unrest, and fears of Communist infiltration into the trade unions, this was one of the most significant posts on any serious newspaper. It was also one of the least comfortable, involving many hours of standing outside union headquarters in all weathers, waiting for the next belligerent threat of an impending strike.
He filled that role for six years, becoming one of the most knowledgeable and perceptive correspondents in his field. Reporters from other newspapers, joining him on those chilly vigils, found him generous in sharing his insights.
In 1963, two years after the paper moved its main office to London, he was appointed news editor. “Under Cole,” wrote Geoffrey Taylor in his history of The Guardian, “the news operation acquired a professionalism it had not had before.” Reporters found him a rigorous taskmaster, questioning them closely and often arguing heatedly about their particular take on a story.
After six years on the news desk he was appointed deputy to Alastair Hetherington, who had edited the paper since 1956. In his memoirs, Hetherington wrote: “Part of his great value to me, in addition to his high qualities as a journalist, was that he gave plain and candid advice... He knew more than I did about the way industrial workers lived and about the trade union movement, and he compensated for my more academic background. His criticism was sometimes a grindstone on which to sharpen and polish my opinion; but it was much more than that, for he was one of the major creative forces at work inside the Guardian office.”
When Hetherington retired in 1975, his successor was chosen after an unprecedented consultation exercise with the newspaper’s staff. The two leading candidates were Cole and Peter Preston, the Features Editor. In a close contest the choice fell on Preston. Cole, bitterly disappointed, left almost immediately for The Observer, where he became deputy editor a year later.
The Observer was then owned by the controversial businessman “Tiny” Rowland, who felt entitled to interfere in its editorial policy when it affected his interests. No love was lost between the two men and in 1981 Cole gave evidence against Rowland at an enquiry by the Monopolies Commission.
He did not doubt that such lèse-majesté would make his position untenable. However, the day after he gave his evidence Cole received a call from the BBC asking if he would consider becoming its political editor, succeeding John Simpson. “I thought I’d give it a whizz,” he told an interviewer, and it soon became clear that his career had taken a fruitful new turn.
“John was our father figure,” said John Sargent, one of the team of reporters who worked with him. “Viewers trusted him and warmed to him.” In interviewing politicians he eschewed the fashion for aggressive, finger-pointing interrogation but would ask thoughtful questions, hoping for substantive answers instead of ritual formulaic evasions. “I don’t share the view that all politicians are crooks,” he told The Independent in 1995.
In 1984 his promising new career nearly came to a premature end when he had a heart attack in the House of Commons and needed a bypass operation. He recovered in time to report the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, where the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, narrowly escaped death from an IRA bomb. It was in an interview with Cole next morning that Thatcher declared that the conference would go ahead regardless.
As Thatcher’s reputation grew more formidable Cole refused to be intimidated by her and was one of the first to predict her fall from power in 1990. Just two weeks before her resignation he had quarrelled with her passionately at a lunch at the BBC when he suggested that young people wanted Britain to join the euro, to which she was firmly opposed. “You can always tell these old socialists,” she hissed at John Birt, the Director General, as he took her down in the lift.
In that year Cole was named television journalist of the year by the Royal Television Society and, after his retirement in 1992, he received the prestigious Richard Dimbleby Award from Bafta. He declined the offer of a CBE because of his firm conviction that journalists should not accept honours from the state. In 1995 he wrote a memoir, As It Seems to Me, which remained in the bestseller lists for many weeks.
His last years were dogged by illness and in the final months he could scarcely speak. It was a tragic end to the life of a man for whom words – mellifluous and carefully chosen words – were his stock in trade. He is survived by his wife and four sons.
John Morrison Cole, journalist and broadcaster: born Belfast 23 November 1927; married 1956 Margaret Williamson (four sons); died 7 November 2013.