I was in Tesco this morning when I saw my friend the Guardian veteran Mike White talking on a Sky screen with the sound turned down low. I read the captions. John Cole had died. I’d heard John was failing. I’d last met him a couple of years ago at a Lords reception for John Laird’s extraordinary memoir. John hadn’t really reported on Northern Ireland affairs for forty years but he always kept up the old connection, through family, social contacts and regular holidays with Madge in Portstewart. In that homely sense John never outgrew the place.
In another sense of course he soared beyond its limitations. And yet he owned much to his journalistic origins in the days when the Belfast Telegraph was charting a modestly reforming path under its magisterial editor John E Sayers. Those were the days of the mid to late 1950s when the Northern Ireland Labour party seemed the best hope of progress, at least to pressurise the Ulster unionist government in a reforming direction .
John Cole trained in trade union reporting in Belfast in the days when H&W still seemed a permanent fixture. He transferred easily to labour affairs with the then Manchester Guardian and never looked back. In those were the days of trade union power brokers, his beat was closer to Labour than the Conservatives.
John rose to prominence in the Guardian but it was over Northern Ireland that he came unstuck. Reservations he had about the Unionist record were far outweighed by his detestation of armed rebellion. Guardian luminaries such as Harold Jackson and Simon Winchester had reported the tragic slide to near anarchy from 1968, pinning much of responsibility for it in the early days on the hapless unionist government and the loyalists. In August 1971 John as deputy editor came out in favour of internment. He was allowed to make the call but the Guardian never quite forgave him, as the paper’s otherwise warm and respectful obituary makes clear enough
As news editor and later deputy editor of the Guardian, with a strong influence on what the paper had to say in its editorial commentary, John was frequently swimming against the tide. The most difficult issue was Ireland. On a newspaper where too many assumed that the solutions to problems were simple – reunite the divided island, withdraw, and all would be well – John asserted a greater complexity, insisting that Protestants too had rights that a paper with the Guardian’s liberal traditions ought to respect. However, even those sympathetic to that view were dismayed when he committed the paper through its leader columns to supporting internment.
Ireland has sometimes been cited as one of the reasons why, when Hetherington left the editorship in 1975, Peter Preston was chosen in preference to John by a committee set up by the Scott Trust, which owns and controls the paper, as his successor. It was not the conclusive factor. Some, especially those most concerned with commercial success, thought him too old-fashioned to run a late 20th-century newspaper.
John had joined the paper when it still carried the name of Manchester in its title (this was dropped in August 1959) and was edited from Manchester rather than London (as it was until 1964). He stood for a rooted adherence to old Guardian traditions of seriousness, even at the risk of solemnity, especially in politics, and a dogged distrust of metropolitan whim. He had been a crucial influence in mobilising staff resistance to, and shoring up the editor against, a bizarre attempt by the paper’s management in a time of financial crisis in 1965-66 to engineer a merger with the Times.
Preston, however, represented adventure and change. John lacked the flair that Preston had in abundance. There was also unease about John’s allegiance, never disguised, to the Labour party. But this, as others insisted – including Hetherington, who had sometimes been irked by his dogged party loyalties – did an injustice to John. While never concealing his political sympathies in the editorials he wrote, he had not been slow to assail the party when the Guardian’s view of life demanded it.
His failure to become editor was a blow from which John took some time to recover. Preston invited him to stay as deputy editor, but he went to the Observer, and was for six years deputy editor to Donald Trelford. Here again, he was much admired and respected – though also at times resented by some who found him inflexible, and not only over Ireland.
Personally he seems to have made it up with Peter Preston. But by 1981 it seemed clear he would never make Editor of a leftish national paper and instead took up the offer to become the BBC’s Political Editor. He had never actually done political reporting and longed to do it, although well into his fifties and more accustomed to the executive’s chair than the pavements of the reporter’s stakeout. Hard to imagine now, but the BBCs’ reporting of politics in the News as distinct from Current Affairs, had been brief, studio-bound and too tied to events in Parliament.
Intellectually John was well equipped for the new challenge. He had been Labour leaning but that didn’t seem to matter. But could he broadcast? The BBC had a habit of bringing in outsiders on the basis of their print work as if they’d never met them in person. John Cole seemed to be worst in a series of failed appointments. ( Oh that “accent” or “brogue “they’d say, taking a rough stab at trying to sound knowing about “ the Irish”. Of course it wasn’t the accent, it was the reedy voice and the delivery but they wouldn’t be expected the tell the difference.)
John Cole rose above all that. He was comfortable in his own skin. He brought a new and long overdue interpretative dimension to radio and television political news. He had the passion for the subject, the authority that was a magnet for new contacts and the integrity and authenticity that shone out of the camera lens that won over viewers and listeners and politicians alike. Although well known an as old Labour man he won Thatcher’s respect for his professionalism at the height of her battles with the unions. Few others could have pulled that one off.
While he shattered old conventions of broadcasting he set the mould for his successors. He was in a declining tradition of liberal independent-minded Presbyterianism. And he was kind and generous to me.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London