Friday, 8 November 2013

So farewell then former BBC Political Editor, John Cole – I had to do an impression of you for your BBC leaving video

The only time I can remember John Cole, the BBC’s political editor between 1981 and 1992, letting his socialist beliefs colour his reporting was during Labour’s triumphal Sheffield Rally a week before the 1992 general election. Older readers will remember that this was the glossy event, attended by 10,000 Labour supporters, during which an overexcited Neil Kinnock turned the stomachs of English voters by repeatedly bellowing “Well, All Right!” in an American accent as the hall went wild (Brian Hanrahan’s sober BBC report can be seen here – for those with strong stomachs, Kinnock’s passage of vote-losing madness starts at 1’30).

I remember Cole doing a live two-way from the event into the Nine O’Clock News that evening, his face shining with excitement as he compared the atmosphere of the event to that of a pop concert. My memory of his misplaced enthusiasm for Kinnock's nauseating display seems borne out by this extract from Kevin Jeffreys’ Leading Labour: Keir Hardie to Tony Blair:
According to those who attended, including the BBC’s chief political correspondent, John Cole, the atmosphere of elation in the stadium seemed infectious, almost inebriating, and the whole evening was adjudged to have been a great success.
I was shocked by Cole’s naivety, because I’d worked as his producer for months in the lead-up to the election, and, while I was perfectly aware of his political leanings (he’d been deputy editor of both the Guardian and the Observer, and one Labour-supporting BBC executive had described him to me as “a Stalinist – he think the unions should run everything”) I’d been impressed by his even-handedness. Sheffield was the only occasion on which I was aware of his dirigiste heart over-ruling his journalistic head.

Within a few days of starting my first stint as Cole’s producer at Westminster – it was when the BBC’s tiny, chaotic cupboard of an office was actually situated inside the Houses of Parliament – I had the first of my two serious run-ins with him. I’d been asked by my programme editor to get Cole to highlight some issue or other in his report that evening, and this didn’t go down well. “I don’t need thugs from Television Centre ordering me what to say!” he exploded. I defended my role as best I could and awaited a message to tell me I was to be replaced as politics producer – only the call never came. Cole had a very Irish temper: he’d flare up, but be right as rain ten minutes later.

The only time I saw him truly in full flow was when I made some anodyne remark concerning a Peter Taylor documentary about the IRA which had aired the previous evening – Cole (who’d already suffered a major heart attack) went a very strange colour and started yelling angrily and incomprehensibly until I managed to get across to him that I too viewed the IRA as a bunch of psychopathic gangsters who should be crushed like bugs. One of Cole’s reporter colleagues took me aside later and advised me never again to mention Northern Ireland in Cole’s presence. (The thing that I could never wrap my head around was that Cole was both a fierce unionist and a Republican – what is Unionism without loyalty to the Crown?)

When Cole was compulsorily retired from the BBC following the 1992 election, I was accorded the signal honour of being entrusted with impersonating his voice for the leaving video. My pitch was too deep to get him down pat, but working with him for months on end had allowed me to hone my Ulster accent to the extent that listeners at the farewell party would at least have known who I was attempting to parody. I tried to get out of doing it because Cole was bizarrely sensitive about his accent. He once told me that the BBC was deeply prejudiced against regional and national accents – then abruptly changed the subject when I asked why, in that case, the corporation had employed him, of all people, as its leading political commentator for the past eleven years. Anyway, he evidently didn't take offence, as he never brought it up when we met subsequently.

I’ve never had any objections to the BBC employing left-wing reporters (for a start,  there probably aren’t enough right-wing ones to go round), as long as their leanings don’t colour their reports. Apart from the Sheffield incident, I reckon John Cole kept himself honest (I certainly never had occasion to try to get him to “balance” his reports – fat lot of good it would have done anyway), and for that I salute him. And for saving me from several potentially horrendous blunders. Hondootedly a decent  chap - and a fine journalist.

1 comment:

  1. Your post opened the gates of nostalgia. Hondootedly. And it brought back memories of the fight for the editorship of the Guardian between John Cole, dear old Brian Bighead and the eventual winner, Peter Preston, the defender of journalistic sources being kept confidential.

    Having lost, they couldn't stay at the Guardian, Cole and Redhead. Did they move to the Times? Or the Telegraph? The Economist? The FT? Inconceivable. Back to the mother ship. The BBC.

    That radio spat between the two bigheads, Redhead and Lawson, when Lawson assumed that Redhead voted Labour – when Redhead died, John Humphrys revealed that he (Redhead) voted Conservative. Never mind the party, it so happened that Redhead thought his local MP was a good MP and the right person to vote for.