The former deputy editor of the Guardian and the Observer, and a national figure on the BBC for years, inspired trust and respect right across the political spectrum
John Cole, who died last week, was deputy editor of the Guardian, then deputy editor of the Observer, and a dear friend to many of us here. But he will be remembered countless more times over by the millions who watched his stint as BBC political editor. It wasn't the rich Ulster accent that made him special in Oxbridge world. That was just standard fodder for satirists seeking a cheap shot. It was his obvious, manifest integrity. And that brings something special to current debates.
Does journalism, set against a lurid backcloth of courtrooms, seem somehow grubby and dingy, a trade without faith or scruples? Is the BBC – the biggest newsroom in Britain – in thrall to leftwing hacks peddling their wares under cover of fairness rulebooks? Two baleful themes of the times.
But draw other lines in the sand, lines that John Cole himself might have traced. John never made any secret of his own politics. He was Labour (mostly Old Labour) through and through. He'd been a brilliant labour correspondent of the Guardian when following union leaders and strikes was a top news job. His views on Northern Ireland were, unsurprisingly, equally resolute. Heaven knows what today's BBC-bashers would have said if he'd been made political editor now.
Yet Margaret Thatcher and her surrounding Conservative government said none of these things when John Cole covered her pomp and, most memorably, her fall. He was scrupulously honest. Everyone talked to him and trusted him. And, at the moment of Thatcher's departure, he became a kind of national interlocutor, an interpreter we could all follow – not because he balanced the bromides or wove the whispers, but because his judgment was out there for all to see.
Remember John, and you remember that good journalism can be an inspiriting thing. It's a message in need of more messengers. Heather Brooke, a great, digging journalist herself, has just launched a series of lectures called In Defence of Journalism at City University. She began, the other night, with Andrew Norfolk from the Times, who exposed the grooming and sexual exploitation of young girls in the north when nobody else seemed minded to cross that street. And you only need to see this year's entries for the British Journalism Awards to see that Norfolk is not alone.
On the contrary, as Brooke puts it: "Journalists are good at telling other people's stories, but we've failed to tell our own". If, like me, you've been reading this year's entries, you know that there is such a story to be told. John Cole would have told it brilliantly.