In an age when political parties – mainly the Tories, it has to be said – and their cheerleaders take great delight in kicking the BBC, it may surprise some to know that the Corporation once had a political editor harbouring left-leaning views, but who was respected across the political spectrum, and not least by Margaret Thatcher. That man was John Cole, who has died at the age of 85.
Cole was one of those journalists who was able to give politicians of all stripes a fair hearing, while being immensely knowledgeable and always insightful. This earned him their respect. He also served the Guardian and Observer for many years before arriving at the BBC well into his 50s. Nowadays, the idea of the Beeb recruiting a political editor of that age with little broadcast experience would be unthinkable.
He was also untroubled by bringing his distinctive Northern Irish accent with him, to the clear distress of the political establishment and all those clever people who talk loudly in restaurants, who baulk at the thought of one of those ghastly provincials being allowed on the box. Cole arrived at the BBC when Private Eye was edited by Richard Ingrams.
from Private Eye issue 641
Ingrams may well deny it, but there was far more of the olde worlde public school snottiness about the attitude taken to those who had regional accents (pace phrases such as “Oop North”) at the Eye in his day. Ian Hislop, who is no less a product of public school, tends to distribute his fire more broadly. The Eye frequently carried suitable mangled short pieces alongside Cole’s photo.
These always started “Hondootedly” (for “undoubtedly”) and suggested that it was difficult to make out what Cole was saying, although the BBC’s audience obviously did not share that view. Two samples of the genre from the early 1980s are included here for your enjoyment. John Cole disliked the Eye parodies, but I found them moderately amusing. I also rated Cole as a journalist from the top rank.
from Private Eye issue 657
It’s interesting to note that the likes of Mrs T., who was no stranger to having a go at the Beeb, respected not just Cole, but the likes of Robin Day, formerly a Liberal Parliamentary candidate, and also Brian Walden, former Labour MP and long time host of ITV’s Weekend World. Those who idolise Thatcher, while automatically despising anyone not on their side, would do well to stop and think about that.
Then they would do equally well to remember the great journalism, and high standards, that John Cole left us. There really will not be another like him.