Obituary: John Cole
- 8 November 2013
- From the section UK Politics
John Cole's Ulster brogue and trademark overcoat were familiar to television news viewers throughout the 1980s.
He was the BBC's political editor throughout most of the Thatcher era when the political landscape of Britain changed irrevocably.
He charted the miners' strike, industry privatisation and was present at many significant events, not least the 1984 Brighton bombing.
And it was Cole who correctly predicted that Mrs Thatcher would not survive a leadership vote in 1990.
John Cole was born in Belfast on 23 November, 1927 into a Protestant Unionist family.
He attended the Belfast Royal Academy and was a member of the Boys' Brigade, the Christian youth organisation.
He was just 17 when he joined the Belfast Telegraph in 1945.
A tireless pursuer of stories, he earned himself a scoop when he interviewed the then-prime minister, Clement Attlee, who was holidaying in Ireland.
In 1956, Cole moved to the Guardian, then based in Manchester, and was successively labour correspondent, news editor and deputy editor.
During this period, he honed his knowledge and understanding of industrial affairs, at a time when trade union leaders wielded immense political power.
He joined the Observer in 1975 and served as its deputy editor.
In 1981 Tiny Rowland took over as proprietor and Cole gave evidence against him at the Monopolies Commission - which resulted in a blazing row between the two men.
Cole was already well known at Westminster and, the next morning, he had a call from the BBC offering him the job of political editor as successor to John Simpson.
"I ended up on telly by accident," he said. "Us modern Presbyterians don't believe in predestination, but on this occasion I thought I'd give it a whizz."
Unlike some who have made the journey from print to the small screen, he turned out to be a natural television performer.
He quickly established a reputation for his incisive assessments of the political scene and his gentle but probing interviewing style.
With his distinctive accent he quickly became one of the best-known figures on BBC News bulletins.
It also made him the subject of mirth at the satirical magazine Private Eye, and earned him a place on the Spitting Image television programme.
Although these lampoons irritated him, they showed just what a high-profile figure he had become.
As well as reporting on Westminster for the BBC bulletins he became a vital part of the weekly politics programme On the Record.
In February 1984 John Cole had a severe heart attack at the House of Commons. Eight months later - and after a bypass operation - he was in Brighton when an IRA bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel.
He didn't get to bed that night, and in the early dawn secured a memorable pavement interview with Mrs Thatcher, who had narrowly escaped injury and who stressed that the conference would go ahead.
He later recalled that she had ignored the hustling of her bodyguards and waited till she was sure he had recorded everything he wanted from her.
"That was," he once said, "Margaret Thatcher at her courageous best."
In 1990, when she found herself at loggerheads with her party over the poll tax, it was Cole who correctly predicted that she would not survive as leader.
As the crisis unfolded, Cole used to stand in the Members' Lobby each Monday as MPs returned from their constituencies.
"I only needed to say, 'Well?' and they knew what I meant. A shake of the head, and a murmur that the poll tax was 'disastrous in my patch'."
"The braver added, 'We're going to have to do something about her.'"
Cole reluctantly stepped down as political editor in 1992 when he reached what was then the mandatory BBC retirement age - but he continued to broadcast on BBC radio and TV.
The fact that tributes came in from all sides of the political spectrum was a testament to the even-handed way he had reported politics over the previous 11 years.
"Oh, you can trust him," one Conservative Party activist told the Independent at the time. "More than any of them. I'll miss him."
Cole went on to write a number of books, including his well-received memoirs, As It Seemed To Me, and a novel, A Clouded Peace, in 2001.
In 2007 he wrote an article for the British Journalism Review blaming both politicians and the media for parliamentarians being held in such low esteem.
He was particularly scathing of Alastair Campbell's influence during the Blair years.
"Why did correspondents constantly roll over and allow Campbell to tickle their stomachs in the hope of getting a news break the day before others?"
Despite his Protestant Unionist background John Cole was an unashamed republican.
"It seems to me," he said in 2011, "that the Royal Family inevitably, and without their necessarily wishing it, form the apex of a pyramid of snobbery which does a great deal of damage to British life."
He turned down a CBE in 1993 pointing to the former Guardian rule that journalists could only accept gifts that could be consumed within 24 hours.