John Cole, who died yesterday aged 85, not only did more than any single figure to create popular understanding of the turbulent 1980s, but pioneered the best in modern political broadcast journalism.
As BBC political editor from 1981 to 1992, a job he took at the age of 54 after a successful career as a senior executive on the Guardian and Observer, he brought into millions of homes, with insight and a rare ability to communicate it, the double story of Margaret Thatcher’s government and the fraught attempts of her opponents to come to terms with her revolution. That the Northern Ireland accent and the famous overcoat made him so easily caricatured in Spitting Image was in fact a tribute to his importance as the most recognisable and respected broadcast political journalist since World War II.
As David Cameron and Ed Miliband led tributes to Cole, his present day successor Nick Robinson tweeted: “The man I learnt so much from……has died. He shaped the way all in my trade do our jobs.“ His family - his wife Madge, four sons and nine grandchildren - said: ”For us he was the most loving, funny and devoted husband, father and grandfather. We will miss him terribly, but have so many memories of the tremendous happiness he has brought into our lives.“
He was one of a shrinking breed of political journalists who had been labour correspondents - as he was at The Guardian - which gave him at once a deep lifelong belief in the value of free trade unions and a healthy scepticism about trade union political influence in the Labour Party through the block vote.
As a new political correspondent in 1987 - he was invariably helpful to younger journalists - I can remember chatting with him in a car during the Greenwich by-election, then likely to see a spectacular victory for the SDP over Labour. “Well, there’s only one alternative government,” he said in his characteristic Ulster burr. This private view, dismissive of the long-term prospects for the Social Democrats, was as correct as it was unfashionable at the time.
A Northern Ireland protestant who was also an anti-monarchist, he was unashamedly a Labour man. Yet he remained free of accusations of bias, even at time when many Conservatives were attacking the BBC as an institution. He secured a famous interview with Margaret Thatcher the morning after the Brighton bombing. But perhaps his greatest scoop was his reporting in 1990 the likelihood that she would stand down. He could not have done this if he had not been trusted by his many Conservative sources.
And this was his most prized asset at the BBC. He was trusted by his informants right across the political spectrum, who knew that while they would not be protected from his criticism (“There is nothing worse than reporters who are prisoners of their contacts,” he wrote in his illuminating memoir As it seemed to me) they would not be betrayed as sources. But he was also one of a select few among 20th century broadcasters - Walter Cronkite comes to mind - who was trusted above all by the viewing public.