Political debate ends for BBC's honourable editor: John Cole

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The Independent Online
JOHN COLE, one of the BBC's most loved broadcasters, stepped down last night as political editor.

The BBC retirement policy means he is being shown the slippers and armchair while in his prime. David Aaronovitch, head of the BBC at Westminster, said: 'He's a young man, in mind and ideas. And when he's somewhere like the party conference he's like an excited schoolboy.'

Cole, 65, is keen to play down the notion of him 'retiring': he has refused all attempts to interview him this week and the BBC has no knowledge of any goodbye party. He is not in fact hanging up the hounds-tooth overcoat yet, despite heart attacks at work in 1984 and 1987. He will continue to appear as a political commentator and on the programme he made his own, On The Record.

Nevertheless, there were queues at the Brighton conference to pay tribute. BBC bashing is a cliche of Tory speech-making, and there has been no let-up in it this week. But even ordinary representatives have a soft spot for Cole: 'Oh, you can trust him. More than any of them,' said a woman from Chelmsford. 'I'll miss him.'

Senior politicians were fulsome: 'He's a very wise man,' Virginia Bottomley said. 'I don't know how we're going to live without him. Not to hear that voice,' Michael Heseltine told breakfast time news yesterday, while Neil Kinnock was no less admiring. 'The quality that he has that stands out most for me is his honesty. He is a man of enormous integrity, totally trustworthy.'

Tony Newton, the Leader of the House, said: 'He brought a forceful and reflecting quality to British political commentary that has raised the whole standard of British political journalism.'

The respect that public and politicians have for John Cole has been invaluable to the BBC when its news, particularly its political output, has been under attack. David Aaronovitch sees Cole as 'one of the two or three most important figures' in the resurgence of BBC news in the late 1980s after the long domination of ITN.

Not that he has been any sort of Corporation Man. Mr Aaronovitch said: 'I'd write on his school report card what was once written on mine: 'He shows a remarkable lack of sympathy for those who run the school.' But that attitude is necessary.' Cole's impatience with authority is admired by Michael Brunson, political editor of ITN. 'He's like a tiger if, say, some stupid jobsworth at Central Office tries to restrict us. He has an instinctive reaction to anyone who lays a finger on his freedom of movement. He will lash back.'

Mr Brunson also admires his reporting skills. 'During the Thatcher leadership crisis he was not just on the ground, he had his ear glued to it. Picking up the seismic vibrations.' And it did indeed seem to be his finest hour - night after night, his gentle hints as to what the following day might bring were proved correct.

Since his arrival in 1981 from the Observer, where he was deputy editor (and a fierce opponent of the Lonrho takeover), Cole has also found his own slot in the public heart. When people stop him in the street, though, they usually ask him what tomorrow's weather will be. 'Being a good-natured fellow I usually say 'Sunny with a slight risk of showers'.'

All the same, you sense that Brunson has some envy of the effect of the overwhelming coats, the big brolly and the Northern Irish accent. The last is the most distinctive attribute - celebrated on Spitting Image and in Private Eye. The parodies, it is said, hurt him in the early days. He says he was merely 'irritated' at the suggestion by 'English society' that he was unintelligible.

'I'll miss him enormously,' David Aaronovitch says. And though we'll see him about (he'll be up in the Lake District tomorrow to do Radio 4's Down Your Way) we will all miss the man. Hondootedly.

(Photograph omitted)