John Cole dies aged 85

The former BBC political editor has died after a long illness.

The BBC’s former political editor, John Cole, has died in his Surrey home aged 85. As editor throughout most of Thatcher’s time at Number 10 he covered stories from the miners’ strike to the Falklands war and the Brighton bombing.

Cole’s career began at the Belfast Telegraph in 1945 where he managed to secure a major scoop by interviewing the then-prime minister, Clement Attlee, whilst he was holidaying in Ireland. Cole recounts, in his memoir, that this interview spurred him on to work in Westminster. In 1956 he joined the Guardian successively as labour correspondent, news editor and finally deputy editor. He moved to The Observer in 1975 before succeeding John Simpson as political editor at the BBC in 1981. After retiring in 1992 he penned many books including the aforementioned political memoir As It Seemed to Me (1995) and the novel A Clouded Peace (2001) set in his native Northern Ireland.

Having a Spitting Image puppet alone is an indication of his importance in Westminster. He was known for his Ulster accent and gentle yet probing interview style. Nick Robinson, the current BBC political editor, tweeted that Cole “shaped the way all in my trade do our jobs.” 

The following is an article John Cole wrote for the New Statesman on 5th February, 1993, entitled "A tragedy in three acts":

Imagination is sometimes defined as an ability to connect apparently unconnected subjects. I hope readers will not find me guilty of excessive imagination in suggesting that the plight of the British miners, the devastation of the Irish punt, and the anger of the French government over transfer of Hoover jobs from Dijon to Cambuslang, near Glasgow, are all part of the legacy of the eighties.

The miners first. I have just been in the South Yorkshire coalfield, preparing for a forthcoming BBC2 programme in unemployment. The miners there are in a desperate situation. Other places suffering from unemployment often do not realize how much painful the experience is for mining communities than for most others. First, they are often geographically isolated, people living in districts that are made unattractive to fresh industrial developers by the environmental devastation inseparable from their trade.

Second, the miner’s skill, perhaps his temperament, make him not easily assimilable into gentler jobs. When the Wilson government cancelled the TSR military aircraft, as a cut in defence spending, in the declared belief that the skilled engineering workers would be gobbled up by civilian companies hungry for such skills, that was not what happened.

I was then news editor of the Guardian and, being of skeptical nature, dispatched a reporter to the Preston area six months later, to find out what jobs the displaced TSR men had taken up. A depressing number of them – the majority, as far as we could judge – had moved out of engineering altogether: to door-to-door salesmanship, milk rounds, the whole range of service jobs.

Whenever more pits close – as, sooner or later, most miners believe they will – we need not even expect to see many of the, in these occupations, or their modern equivalents, like double-glazing. Most of them will remain unemployed, or perhaps living a half-life between reliance and a part-time job as a security guard, which appears to be one of Britain’s most thriving growth industries.

Many miners believe they are paying a political price for having defeated Edward Heath’s government in 1974 and half-humbled Margaret Thatcher’s eight years later. The memoirs, most notable Peter Walkers and Nigel Lawson’s, leave little doubt that, before 1984, ministers were awaiting the miners’ later assault, under Arthur Scargill’s unpredictable leadership, with a large club, down a darkened alley.

A shrewd friend of mine on the Observer once observed of our then editor-in-chief, Conor Cruise O’Brien, a man whose intellect I revered, as someone said of Shakespeare, “only a little this side idolatry”: “Conor needs an enemy.” In other words, he performed best, as a controversialist, when he had identified an adversary whose opinions or behaviour he could engage. Charles James Haughey, sometime Taoiseach of Ireland, was one such (as I would argue) worthy enemy.

Margaret Thatcher has the same characteristic. Her comparison of General Galtieri with Arthur Scargill’s “enemy within” may be notorious, but it reveals much about her way of thinking. She was a reactionary – still is, some would say – not in any vulgar sense, but because she operated most effectively when reacting to something she disliked strongly, like trade union power. Leave out the rights and wrongs of the issue: she needed a target, an enemy. We shall see if she proves as effective, in her afterlife in the Lords, in reaction against Maastricht; John Major will fervently hope that her talent has faded during her travels on the international lecture circuit.

The miners’ strike was the leitmotif in the gathering tragedy, but the overall cause was the government’s drive towards privitisation. What has caused their present misfortunes is not so much the plan to privities coal – which seems, to put it mildly, some way short of attainment. Rather it is privitisation is electricity. By the end of the last decade, it was clear that the consequences for the pits would be dire. Once any matter is left to the markets, politicians are at risk, not least legal risk, if they interfere with that market.

Which brings us to the Irish punt, and the state of the international money markets. Nigel Lawson, in the most enlightening of all ministerial memoirs of the Thatcher period, acknowledges that financial deregulation has consequences that its protagonists never foresaw: “a climate of unusual optimism, the consequences which were greatly exacerbated by the follies of the lending institutions, and in particular the banks . . .” He asks rhetorically: “Was the government responsible for the banks taking leave of their senses?”

The mountain of debt that built up after deregulation has overshadowed the world’s economy in a much more damaging way that butter mountains ever affected Europe. It is a veritable Aberfan of economics, and has engulfed us all in the worst recession since the thirties, causing untold misery in the coalfield I have been visiting, and far, far worse hardship in the poorest nations of the earth.

Attempts by politicians to control the activities of the speculators, through institutions like the ERM, look increasingly feeble against the forces of near-nature they face (in the shape of man’s age-old desire to make a fast buck). With the influence that modern chancellors have over what actually happens, you wonder whether we can afford their salaries, much less their legal expenses.

The Irish punt, so recently fortified by the pledges of a new government, is the latest casualty. Doubtless there will be more. But, one day, the world will have to return to a sustainable system of exchange rates that will allow its commerce an industry to be conducted in a way more rational than the gambling tables of Monaco.

And then we have the case of Hoover, where the French are accusing the British of unfair poaching of jobs, by undercutting other European countries to win investment. This is an issue that will not go away, as indeed John Major does not intend that it should. Ever since Maastricht, he has been engaged in an increasingly vocal campaign to claim that the UK is the best place in the Community for inward investment.

Maastricht was our subject last week, and I will not tax readers’ patience by plunging into its minutiae again. But it has always seemed improbable that the European single market will prove sustainable if social conditions and, most significantly, unit costs of labour in the member countries do not begin to converge. Britain’s opt-out from the Social Chapter may increase Britain’s comparative advantage for a time – and bring much-needed jobs to Cambuslang at the expense of France. 

John Cole in 1984. Photo: BBC Pictures
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder