John Cole: what his death reveals about present-day political reporting

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:

The long-running debate about bias and trivialisation has taken new life, not only with Tony Benn’s campaign and the TUC’s resentment over how the Winter of Discontent was reported, but also in much applauded Tory criticism of the media at Blackpool.

Such criticism often looks back in sadness to a world that probably never was, and one that certainly will never be again. Tony Benn urges ‘coverage’. But the Press is not about to revert to some modern equivalent of the four of five columns devoted to Gladstone’s speeches whose tiny readership had time to peruse them before embarking on a three-volume novel.

So that’s John Cole, lionised as the doyen of political impartiality and serious journalism, writing about the problem of perceived bias and triviality in October 1981. He called it, you’ll have noted, a ‘long-running debate’ even back then – which certainly puts the claim that bias and “dumbing down” are new problems that only developed after he retired into perspective. It’s also John Cole drawing specific attention, 32 years ago, to the fact that leftwingers were so convinced of a systematic media plot to deny them fair coverage that they were campaigning against it at the same time as Conservative politicians were convinced they saw evidence of a systematic pro-left bias in the media. Plus ça change

And you’ll also note that Cole – perceptive analyst that he was – successfully diagnosed the role of sentimental nostalgia in influencing people’s thinking on the topic. The way that those who complained about the “new” problems of triviality and bias hearkened back to a supposed golden age of political coverage that either never existed, or had changed because it had to change. How perfect it is that the subject of so many nostalgic panegyrics about his role in a prelapsarian utopia should have written an article warning of the dangers of nostalgic panegyrics! And that he should have done so in the context of a passage in which – just before embarking on what is now regarded as a golden age – he chastised those who expected him to emulate the “golden age” of his forebears is even better. (He could hardly be more clear in his disdain for those who demanded a style of political journalism appropriate to a more leisured age – one in which only a small number of people had time to turn from exhaustive political reporting to the pages of a Victorian door-stopper novel.)

Cole tackles the issue of a too-narrow focus in political reporting in similar style. (For the purposes of this paragraph, it helps to know that Denis Healey and Jim Prior were moderate centrists in the Labour and Conservative parties, respectively, while Tony Benn was on the radical left of Labour, and Keith Joseph the radical right of the Conservatives – though those positions are all relative, of course, given the decisive rightward shift in the whole of politics since then. Oh, and ‘Butskellite’ refers to the consensual, centrist politics of the 1950s. Apologies for patronising you if you knew all this already.)

Six years ago, soon after I joined The Observer, Tony Benn complained to me that too many newspapers, even the serious ones, saw the political debate taking place in a spectrum extending from, say, Denis Healey to Jim Prior. Yet he believed he himself was saying something of importance, and had no doubt Keith Joseph felt the same. Newspapers failed in their duty if they reflected only the narrow, Butskellite debate.

It seemed a fair point, and honest journalists and broadcasters keep trying to do something about it.

This time, although Cole was writing his article in 1981, he’s actually referring to conversations he had when he first started work on The Observer newspaper, back in 1975. So that’s getting on for 40 years ago that people outside the political mainstream were complaining about the lack of attention afforded to them, and journalists were struggling to find the solution. Then as now, presumably, the problem was that the centre ground accounted for the majority of the public (hence why it is/was the centre ground – the space into which all parties attempt to insert themselves). And no doubt a subsidiary problem was also the same as now: that the requirement to treat politics impartially (giving equal attention to all views) is at odds with the requirement to be balanced (to broadly reflect the balance of opinion in the country as a whole).

Giving equal weight to Joseph and Benn as to Prior and Healey would have resulted in coverage that lacked balance, but relegating them to the peripheries resulted in coverage that lacked impartiality. It’s an impossible dilemma and an enduring problem, one still faced by the BBC and the other broadcast media: how to reconcile definitions of ‘fair coverage’ that stress impartiality with those that stress the need for balance? The print media has to a very great extent got round the problem, by retreating wholesale from any attempt at impartiality and balance in their reporting – something that John Cole saw happening in 1981, and about which he worried.

It may seem odd that someone who has earned his living in part by writing leading-articles should complain that the Press has become too opinionated. But I do believe that opinion has spread too widely from the editorial columns to news reporting, and has become too assertive.

What journalistic mentors in the Forties and Fifties used to criticise as shoddy ‘angle-writing’, fit only for the least demanding newspapers, is now too often the norm. Is there no merit left in Tennyson’s ‘honest doubt’, in leaving the reader a little room to make up his mind either way?

The whole article is full of that sort of thing; problems which we’re used to thinking of as the product of our debased modern era being worried about in the context of the early 80s – the golden era, as it seems now to many contemporary commenters.

There’s an astonishing section early in the article where Cole frets at the fact that journalists and politicians are held alike in contempt by the public, and diagnoses what these days we’d call soundbite politics – specifically the inability of politicians to honour the promises they make in high-impact slogans – as part of the problem. That part in particular feels so contemporaneous it’s almost tempting to call it prescient. Except of course that the slogan is not “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees” but “the pound in your pocket will not be devalued”, and Cole is not writing about what would happen to student tuition fees in 2010, but what had happened in the devaluation crisis of the 1960s.

That’s the point, of course: that people who saw in John Cole’s death an opportunity to draw attention to what they saw as “new” problems in political reporting, and the BBC’s reporting especially, are given the lie by Cole’s own words. Worry about bias, triviality and conformity in political coverage is no more a new problem than is the effect soundbite-happy politicians have on public trust in the political process. To paraphrase the man himself, there probably never was a golden age of political reporting, and if there was it certainly wasn’t John Cole’s era. His own article makes it clear that it was riven through with exactly the same anxieties as now. There was never a time when people across the political spectrum weren’t convinced that the media in general – and the BBC in particular – were blatantly biased against them.

It’s clear Cole took up his position as BBC political editor expecting that he would be unflatteringly compared to the political reporters of a supposed golden age, and accused, by contrast with them, of every journalistic failing under the sun. I wonder if the John Cole of 1981 would be more amused or amazed to learn that – 30 years on – he would have become the quasi-mythical golden reporter against whose supposed excellence his successors would be judged and found wanting? It’s a shame we’ll never get to witness his own analysis of that particular conundrum.

* – I saw a report somewhere online which said John Cole’s Northern Irish accent was ‘satirised’ in Private Eye, and on Spitting Image. Not as I recall. Calling it satire implies that there was some kind of serious intent behind the mockery, when really they were just pointing and laughing at somebody they, in their South East England bubble, thought “sounded funny”. It was about as satirical as Mike Yarwood’s impression of Frank Spencer.

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