Date of Birth: 23 November 1927, Belfast, Northern Island
Birth Name: John Morrison Cole
Nicknames: John Cole
John Cole, the BBC’s former political editor, who has died aged 85, set the political agenda during the Thatcher years, when his mangled Ulster accent, square glasses and unfashionable herringbone coat made him an instantly recognisable figure on the nation’s television screens.
The sight of Cole outside No 10 or on College Green outside the Houses of Parliament was a guarantee of compelling and incisive political analysis. Honourable, hard-working and well-informed, he aimed to provide “politics for grown-ups”, and he had an enviable knack of exuding authority without being pompous or obscure.
He refused to get caught up in gossipy personality politics and had to be prodded into reporting the sex scandals which rocked Mrs Thatcher’s administration. Yet he always kept ahead of the game, because he was trusted to be fair and because his analysis was always rooted in an understanding of the fundamental political issues.
Cole’s idiosyncratic style and Ulster brogue won him his own unintelligible puppet on Spitting Image, and he was guyed in Private Eye’s “Hondootedly” column. He was irritated by the satire, confessing that he regarded himself as “a pretty serious journalist. I didn’t want to turn into a buffoon.” Nor was he amused when, after a report in which he had used the phrase “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”, his colleague David Dimbleby turned to the viewers and said: “That last bit was in French.”
But this slightly prickly, humourless quality was also the key to Cole’s success as a journalist. Entirely free of cynicism himself, and detesting the quality in others, he subscribed to the unfashionable theory that politicians enter politics for honourable and idealistic reasons, and he approached them and their performance in those terms.
As a consequence, he was trusted by politicians right across the spectrum. Mrs Thatcher singled him out for her first interview after the Brighton bomb and in 1990 he was the first to break the news of her imminent downfall; the first to predict that John Major would be Prime Minister; and the first to predict (again correctly) that Major’s challenger, Michael Heseltine, would be appointed Environment Secretary in the new administration.
Cole’s performance during the crisis won him the Royal Television Society’s journalist of the year award. At one point he jokingly remarked that he was thinking of going ex-directory so that he did not have to take calls from cabinet ministers asking him what was going on.
Even delegates to the Tory Party Conference had a soft spot for Cole. Yet ironically, had they known his true political views, they would have had all their prejudices about the Corporation confirmed. For behind his rigorous impartiality there beat an “Old” Labour heart one colleague described him as the “last of the Stalinists”. He was a man who would, as he once confessed, have closed down Oxford and Cambridge and abolished the House of Lords.
Cole was a model of politeness when he interviewed Mrs Thatcher, but as he confessed after his retirement he found it hard to remain impartial, as he detested everything she stood for: what he saw as her lack of concern for the poor, her “enamelled certitude” and “immanent sense of being right”. In one interview conducted after he had retired from the BBC, he named her as the worst Prime Minister Britain had ever had. That he was able to separate the personal from the professional indicated a modesty and intellectual integrity of a kind which few political pundits have achieved before or since.
When Cole retired from the BBC in 1992, it was John Major who gave perhaps the most perceptive assessment of his career: “Politicians like him, they trust him and when he presents policies, there is one thing he does that few others have ever managed to do properly. That is to set out the background to the decision and the constraints that politicians face. I think that’s earned him very high admiration.”
John Morrison Cole was born in Antrim Road, north Belfast, on November 23 1927 into a Protestant Unionist family. His father owned a small electrical business. His upbringing was Presbyterian and colleagues felt that this was the key to his character. David Wilson, a BBC producer who worked with Cole, described him as “a very moral man, upright in a rather old-fashioned way. 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.”’
Cole never distanced himself from Northern Ireland and would become irritated with English friends who dismissed the Irish as a lot of warring tribes. He himself favoured the union and internment, and disliked the Anglo-Irish treaty, though he rejected narrow sectarianism and despised discrimination. But as with all his political reporting, he was careful to maintain a strict impartiality, giving due weight to both sides of the sectarian divide.
Cole was educated at the Belfast Royal Academy, but left at 17 to become a cub reporter on the Belfast Telegraph, where he cut his journalistic teeth reporting the agriculture estimates at the old assembly at Stormont.
He had his first political scoop aged 21 when he was sent to the border to interview the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, on his way back from holiday in Co Sligo: “There was another young reporter there, but he was just doing a holiday story asking the Attlees what they’d been doing... So [Attlee] was rather taken by surprise when I pulled out a cutting from a London paper which said that he was going to end partition and have a unified Ireland. This was news to Attlee, who denied it. 'Get your notebook out, young man,’ he said to me. There and then he dictated his denial, in perfect paragraphs. I phoned it across, word for word, and it made the front page.”
The scoop convinced Cole that his future lay at Westminster, and in 1956 he took a job as a reporter, then labour correspondent, for The Guardian. In 1960 he won an award for Scoop of the Year after picking up a rumour that Alf Robens, a possible Labour leader, was going to be made chairman of the Coal Board by the Tories. No one in the trade union movement or the Labour Party believed it not even Harold Wilson but it turned out to be true.
Cole worked his way up to deputy editor, then, after being pipped for the editorship, took the same position at The Observer before Lonhro bought the paper in 1981. Cole gave evidence against Tiny Rowland at the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and, when the bid was cleared, Rowland extended an ironic hand of friendship: “He fixed me with those icy blue eyes of his and said slowly 'I shall look forward to working with you.’ I knew I wouldn’t last.”
Cole was saved the indignity of touting round for a new job when, the following morning, the BBC rang to see whether he would be interested in the job of political editor. He took it like a shot.
In political interviews, Cole always played it straight, neither bullying nor sycophantic, a tactic which yielded a number of scoops. When he interviewed Mrs Thatcher after she had called the 1987 election, she was burying him in statistics when he 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.’” He saw her human side. In The Thatcher Years (1987) he wrote: “I heard of one occasion when she breezed into a meeting, slapped a file on the table and said to the assembling ministers, 'I’m in a dreadful hurry this morning. I’ve only really got time to explode.’”
When Cole formally retired from the BBC in 1992, it was to mournful headlines. In retirement he wrote his memoirs, As it Seemed to Me (1995), in which he chronicled what politicians he knew had said or done over the years and developed the theme that the arrival of Mrs Thatcher marked the point at which pragmatic politics had given way to dogma. Disappointingly, however, he revealed little of himself. He continued to make regular appearances on television and radio, and in 2001 wrote a novel, A Clouded Peace, set in Northern Ireland.
Cole remained untouched by celebrity and lived a modest, frugal life. He avoided showbusiness parties, worked hard and continued to live in the pebble-dash house at Claygate, Surrey, that he had bought in 1956. People in the street would often take him for the weather man Ian McCaskill and, when asked what the weather would be, he would usually reply that it would be “sunny with a slight risk of showers”.
Typically, John Cole refused a CBE when it was offered in 1993.