Obituary: John Cole, political editor

Born: 23 November, 1927, in Belfast. Died: 8 November, 2013, in Surrey, aged 85
Robust BBC political editor who refused the CBE offered to him on retirement. Picture: PARobust BBC political editor who refused the CBE offered to him on retirement. Picture: PA
Robust BBC political editor who refused the CBE offered to him on retirement. Picture: PA

The BBC’s political correspondent John Cole, with his strong Ulster accent, thick-rimmed glasses and taste in herring-bone Tweed overcoats, became one of the most recognisable faces on television throughout the 1980s and early 90s. He was a man of utmost honesty and integrity who, in his calm and authoritative pieces to camera commanded an immediate respect. Before going to the BBC Cole was an equally respected labour correspondent on The Guardian.

At the BBC Cole refused to get involved in gossipy side issues or celebrity behaviour. The scandals and deep-seated rivalries of the Thatcher years were reported in a balanced and straightforward manner.

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Cole was trusted by the politicians and the audience: he was fair, reliable and had a deep understanding of politicians and politics. “Fashion,” he once wrote derisively, “is a four-letter word.”

These qualities were seen on many occasions. Mrs Thatcher chose Cole for her first interview after the Brighton bomb; in 1990 he broke news of her departure from Number 10 and at the same time predicted that John Major would be the next Prime Minister.

John Morrison Cole was the son of an electrical engineer and brought up on the Antrim Road in Belfast. He attended the Belfast Royal Academy and in 1945 began as a cub reporter on the local paper, graduating to the post of its political man at Stormont.

In his time on the Belfast Telegraph Cole interviewed the then prime minister Clement Attlee, who had been holidaying in Sligo. It confirmed Cole in his choice of career.

In 1956 his work attracted the attention of the Manchester Guardian and he joined its labour desk covering mostly industrial disputes. The following year he joined the London office as labour correspondent.

His time at The Guardian saw much unrest in labour relations and Cole reported strikes, working conditions and industrial closures with a robust sense of factual accuracy.

He never lapsed into the hearsay or voiced controversial personal opinions. In many ways, when he was a print journalist, he epitomised the social ethos that had brought The Guardian such a loyal readership over many years.

This attitude was reflected in 1965 when he mobilised many of the journalists on the paper after the board of directors proposed a merger with The Times. Cole experienced a major disappointment in 1975 when he lost out to Peter Preston to become the paper’s editor.

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Some thought his views were too rooted in the old Labour Party and others that his Irish background might prove a handicap. But he remained an excellent print journalist – working well to tight deadlines and knowing who to get for vital quotes.

Preston invited him to stay on as deputy editor, but Cole accepted an offer from The Observer. For six years he acted as deputy editor to Donald Trelford but Cole spoke out at the Monopolies and Mergers Commission against Tiny Rowland acquiring the paper and his days were numbered. Cole yearned to be in the thick of things as a political correspondent and out of the blue came an offer which he accepted immediately. In 1981 he was appointed the BBC’s political editor.

It was his absolute dedication to impartiality that shone through in his years with the BBC. After his retirement he confessed he detested everything Mrs Thatcher stood for – particularly her aloof attitude and lack of concern for the poor. Later in the article he named her as the worst Prime Minister Britain had ever had.

To his considerable credit, Cole never displayed any hint of such opinions in the numerous interviews he conducted with her.

In truth, Cole was a traditional Labour supporter and a follower of such left-of-centre politicians as Harold Wilson.

Cole retired from the BBC in 1992 and wrote his autobiography (As It Seemed to Me) and a novel (A Clouded Peace) at his house in Surrey where he had lived all his adult life. He remained modest, avoided political reunions and seldom returned to Westminster or the BBC studios.

Andrew Marr, a BBC colleague, recalled yesterday: “John was a journalist whose reporting was clear and unambiguous. He was politically committed and the first political journalist to become a character. People felt they had a friend at Westminster.”

Throughout his career Cole had a nose for ferreting out a story. Once, when he was interviewing Mrs Thatcher during the 1987 election, she hit him with a barrage of statistics.

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When she took a breath Cole swiftly asked if this would be her last election. Somewhat taken aback, the Iron Lady replied: “Oh no, I intend to go on and on and on.”

Cole refused a CBE in 1993. In 1956 he married Madge Williamson, who survives him with their four sons.