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John Cole: a journalist who had the genuine affection of viewers

BY MICHAEL LEAPMAN

John Cole was not just the best-known political editor in the history of the BBC, he was also the most accomplished.

Integrity, fairness and common decency are not the qualities most associated with the world of Westminster, yet he displayed them in abundance, gaining the respect of politicians and, remarkably for a man in that role, the genuine affection of viewers and listeners.

His pronounced Belfast accent had something to do with establishing his onscreen character, as did the doggedly unfashionable coats he sported when doing his stuff outside 10 Downing Street.

Born in 1927 in north Belfast, Cole was educated at Belfast Royal Academy, leaving at 17 to become a reporter on the Belfast Telegraph. In 1956 he married Margaret Williamson, also from Belfast, and they moved to Manchester, where he had been recruited to what was then still The Manchester Guardian.

After six years on the news desk he was appointed deputy to Alastair Hetherington, but when Hetherington retired in 1975 his successor was chosen over Cole who, bitterly disappointed, left for The Observer.

In 1981 Cole received a call from the BBC asking if he would consider becoming its political editor, succeeding John Simpson. "I thought I'd give it a whizz," he told an interviewer, and it soon became clear that his career had taken a fruitful new turn.

The morning after the IRA bomb which nearly killed Margaret Thatcher, it was in an interview with Cole that the Prime Minister declared the Conservative Party conference would go ahead regardless.

In that year Cole was named television journalist of the year by the Royal Television Society and, after his retirement in 1992, he received the prestigious Richard Dimbleby Award from Bafta.

His last years were dogged by illness and in the final months he could scarcely speak. It was a tragic end to the life of a man for whom words – mellifluous and carefully chosen – were his stock-in-trade.

MICHAEL LEAPMAN

Belfast Telegraph

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