John Cole, sadly, has died. He became the BBC’s political editor when I was eight, and retired when I was nineteen; his was thus the face and voice of political reporting during the period of time when my interest in politics first developed. The political world he reported on seems an awfully long time ago now. The era of the Johns Major and Smith as, respectively, prime minister and leader of the opposition that was just beginning when he bowed out feels ancient enough, but he’s most associated in my mind with an even earlier era: that of Margaret Thatcher at the terrifying height of her sleek, unstoppable power. Nevertheless, his death has made me sad. He had a genuine if indirect impact on my life, even though he never knew I existed.
(I actually have another reason to think fondly of Mr Cole, besides his role in my political education. I was playing the part of Abraham Johnson in a school production of WB Yeats’ play Words Upon the Windowpane – the only Belfast man, as I recall, in a suite of characters otherwise from Dublin – and I modelled my accent closely on his. After the last performance, one of the audience (somebody’s cousin, over for a visit from Northern Ireland) sought me out to ask me how long I’d been “over here”. The greatest – if most unintended – compliment I ever received, and I owe it to John Cole’s ubiquity on TV and radio, which gave me endless time to familiarise myself with the various vowel sounds. This was in the Long Ago, don’t forget, when there was no worldwide web, and no casually tracking down samples of accents from anywhere in the world at the press of a button click of a mouse flick of a finger.)*
His death has been widely reported in the media, and many of those articles have given readers an opportunity to comment. By and large, people have said respectful things about him. He has been praised for his skill as a journalist, lauded for his serious-minded approach, and honoured for his ability to report politics fairly, his own strongly held views notwithstanding. So far, so lovely, but many commenters have felt the need to compare and contrast with the current situation.
People have begun with applause for Cole as a serious journalist – but only as a pretext for denigrating the media generally, and the BBC specifically, for its current trivial, ‘dumbed down’ approach to politics. Or people have begun by praising John Cole for his scrupulous impartiality – but only because it gives them another opportunity to insist that the BBC generally, and Nick Robinson as political editor specifically, is systematically and egregiously biased. (The precise nature of the bias varies with the political allegiance of the commenter, of course: leftwingers convinced Robinson’s every syllable is Tory propaganda, rightwingers that he is a relentless advocate for socialism.) Others have praised Cole for his nuanced attention to the whole gamut of politics – but only so as to deplore the tendency of modern political reporting to concentrate on the battle between the Labour and Conservative front benches at the expense of the wider political landscape.
It would be interesting – wouldn’t it? – to know what Mr Cole himself would make of all this. What one of the acknowledged journalistic heavyweights of yesteryear would have to say about the supposedly woeful state of contemporary political journalism. How he would respond to the proposition that the BBC’s 21st century political output is uniquely beset by triviality, bias and shortsightedness.
Well, in a manner of speaking we can. The Guardian helpfully reproduced online his last article as deputy editor of The Observer – an article written with one eye on his past as a newspaperman, and another looking forward to his new career at the BBC – in which he reflects on the nexus of politics and journalism. The whole article is worth a read (if only to be reminded of how plausible it seemed in 1981 that Mrs Thatcher might lose the next election) but I’ve drawn out a couple of sections for closer attention. Here, for example, is what Cole had to say 32 years ago about the perception of bias and triviality in the media: