Cole, John Morrison (1927–2013), journalist and broadcaster, was born into a working-class presbyterian family on 23 November 1927 in Whitewell Road, Belfast, the son of George Cole, a small electrical contractor of Whitewell Road, and his wife Alice (née Morrison). Growing up in north Belfast, he was a member of the Boy's Brigade, a Christian youth group. He attended local primary schools at Fortwilliam and Skegoneill, and then went to the Belfast Royal Academy.
Joining the Belfast Telegraph newspaper as a copytaker in 1945, he was promoted to general reporter before becoming first the industrial and then the municipal correspondent. In 1953 he was made the political correspondent. He studied in his spare time, graduating from the University of London with an external BA degree. He assisted joint editor Jack Sayers (qv) in making the unionist-supporting Belfast Telegraph more liberal towards catholics and also more serious, but was depressed by the sterility of politics in Northern Ireland, revolving as it did around national identity rather than the province's socio-economic problems. In 1956 he joined the Manchester Guardian (the Guardian from 1959) as a general reporter, returning briefly to Belfast that year to marry his childhood sweetheart, Margaret ('Madge') Williamson, a physical education teacher at the Belfast Royal Academy. They had four sons.
He was transferred from Manchester to London in 1957 to act as industrial correspondent, settling permanently in Claygate, Surrey. The prevailing industrial relations turmoil enabled him to break a succession of stories, as did his requirement to cover the Labour party's annual conference and national executive committee amid ideological conflict within the party. He developed good sources within the trade unions and Labour, making his name in 1960 by predicting a prominent Labour frontbencher's departure from politics. Despite supporting more centralised forms of wage bargaining, Cole ensured the Guardian opposed later government attempts to impose such structures on the trade union movement because he saw independent unions as integral to a pluralist society. A fervent believer in the Guardian's high-minded, left-wing politics, he shed his austere Irish presbyterian heritage for the more progressive outlook of the English dissenting tradition, becoming a committed member of the united reform church.
As the Guardian's London news editor from 1963, he professionalised the previously patchy and uncoordinated news coverage, establishing the primacy of reporting in what had been more of a 'viewspaper'. He helped steer the Guardian through its near-fatal transition from being a highly regarded, but somewhat Victorian provincial newspaper into a modern, national and firmly London-based quality broadsheet. The editor Alastair Hetherington relied on Cole's candid advice and knowledge of politics, the trade unions and the economy, promoting him to deputy editor in October 1969. (He had earlier spent five months in America during 1966 studying labour relations as an Eisenhower Exchange Fellow.) Staff subjected to his rigorous questioning, dogmatism, love of argument and explosive, though short-lived, temper, admired and respected him nevertheless for his decency, integrity and commitment. Always a prickly, pushy yet infectiously enthusiastic colleague, he balanced a strong work ethic with a good sense of fun and relished engaging in political gossip over lunch or drinks. Off duty, he enjoyed tennis and literature, and was a member of the Athenaeum club in London.
His most important source, the home secretary and future prime minister, Jim Callaghan, effectively took charge of Northern Ireland upon the dispatch of British troops there to restore order in August 1969. Cole wielded considerable influence over Northern Irish policy through Callaghan, favouring sweeping changes for what he regarded as a failed polity, which would be better off under direct rule from London. Although Callaghan's term as home secretary ended in June 1970, Cole then had the ear of a succession of British government ministers with responsibility for Northern Ireland.
He also shaped the Guardian's line on Northern Ireland, which unequivocally supported the civil rights movement during 1968 before becoming increasingly pessimistic. Whereas most of his Guardian colleagues saw Northern Ireland purely as a civil rights issue, he warned that the crisis arose from an all but irresolvable clash of nationalisms. As his fears were confirmed by the IRA's resurgence during 1970–71, his editorials urged a robust crackdown alleviated by further reforms; he was an early advocate for the disbanding of the B Specials and for power-sharing between unionists and nationalists.
In August 1971 he committed the Guardian to supporting the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland, holding this line throughout the autumn, despite the heavy-handed and inept manner in which this policy was implemented. There were heated arguments with colleagues wherein he expressed his hatred of the IRA with a vehemence that led many to dismiss him as a hard-line unionist. Overruled on internment by an embarrassed Hetherington in January 1972, Cole ensured that the editorials and headlines continued to put a sympathetic slant on British army conduct in Northern Ireland, often contradicting the Guardian's own reporters. The Guardian was the newspaper most likely to dissent from the largely uncritical British press coverage of the army so its ambiguous stance heartened government proponents of coercion while dismaying many of its readers.
Northern Ireland strained Cole's relations with Hetherington, though not as seriously as their disagreements over Hetherington's preference for a coalition government during the two 1974 British general elections. Cole suspected his championing of Labour – and with that a trade union movement wreaking industrial havoc, particularly in printing – caused him to lose out narrowly in the contest to succeed Hetherington as editor in 1975. His lack of flair and unfamiliarity with design and production contributed at least as much to the greatest disappointment of his career.
He moved on within days to become an assistant editor at the Observer, a left-liberal Sunday newspaper. Controlling comment on British political affairs, he served from 1976 as an overbearing but supportive deputy editor to the inexperienced Donald Trelford. He enjoyed working and arguing with Conor Cruise O'Brien (qv) who became the Observer's editor-in-chief in 1977 and shared his views on Northern Ireland. Dismayed by the failure of Northern Ireland's power-sharing experiment in 1974, Cole advocated the extra-judicial imprisonment of paramilitary leaders as a precursor to the restoration of power sharing, clinging, however forlornly, to the hope that the IRA could be defeated. In 1979 he supported O'Brien in forcing out the Observer's main writer on Irish affairs, Mary Holland (qv), for being too sympathetic to Irish nationalism.
Before the 1979 British general election he badgered O'Brien and Trelford into publishing an editorial endorsing Labour, which alienated the Observer's owners, contributing to its sale in 1981 to the notorious businessman Roland 'Tiny' Rowland. Cole's outspoken opposition to this takeover culminated in a blazing row between him and Rowland during the latter's first meeting with the Observer's senior staff. When the BBC offered Cole the job of political editor the next morning, he jumped before he was pushed. As had been the case when he left the Guardian, his departure reduced the Observer's support for tough security measures in Northern Ireland.
Bruised by his experiences of Fleet Street power struggles and increasingly concerned that print journalism was blurring the distinction between reporting and comment, he was glad to resume reporting, especially on the Westminster brief that he had long coveted. A fraught learning period ensued for him and his broadcast crew, as he pushed back, and adapted to, the restrictions of his new medium. Although his weekly political column for the Listener magazine provided a much-needed outlet for lengthier musings, his prose was too often deadened by a laboured even-handedness: the enforced brevity of broadcasting honed his analysis.
Television watchers were disconcerted at first by his strong Ulster brogue, square glasses, unfashionable herringbone coat and dour demeanour. Regularly lampooned by Private Eye magazine and the Spitting image television show, he resented this as a form of class condescension and decried such proponents of political satire for stoking cynicism about politicians, who he believed were driven, mainly, by noble intentions. For all that, his nondescript appearance and provincial accent distinguished him from more conventionally telegenic broadcasters, making him seem more genuine and credible.
BBC reporters had merely regurgitated the opposing party lines and held aloof from politicians off-air. Cole swept these inhibitions aside, enabling the BBC to break stories by drawing on his unparalleled range of political contacts to secure confidential information from MPs, who trusted him not to reveal names. His broadcasts also broke new ground in seeking to impart analysis and context with a view to illuminating the power struggles occurring off-stage. Cautiously argued yet authoritatively delivered, his sound, informed and unbiased judgements engrossed viewers, reviving the BBC's news coverage following a long period in the doldrums. This enabled him to blunt an attempt by his BBC superiors to diminish his authority as political editor in 1988.
Given a fifty per cent chance of surviving after having a heart attack in February 1984, he underwent successful heart bypass surgery and, on returning to work six months later, maintained a punishing schedule. (He suffered another, less serious heart attack in 1987.) Almost his first act on resuming work in 1984 was to interview the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, within hours of her narrow escape from an IRA bomb in Brighton. Despite inwardly disliking Thatcher for normalising mass unemployment and embittering Westminster politics, he maintained a scrupulous impartiality throughout his many interviews with her, and conservatives exempted him from their frequent complaints of BBC bias. His understated approach, neither sycophantic nor haranguing, yielded coherent interviews.
The pace of events leading up to Thatcher's ousting in November 1990 forced him to depart from his usual scripted reports and extemporise almost continuously on television and radio from early morning to midnight. He thrived off this challenge, sealing his reputation as the doyen of Westminster watchers by being quick to declare that Thatcher's premiership was in jeopardy and by indicating that she might resign after falling short of the required majority in a leadership vote. The latter suggestion was greeted with incredulity before being vindicated the next day. For his coverage of Thatcher's downfall, the Royal Television Society named him joint television journalist of the year for 1990.
He retired in 1992 to widespread acclaim and as a minor British television celebrity, albeit one often mistaken for a weatherman. Fame did not change his modest middle class lifestyle. He continued for a time to appear regularly on BBC television and radio shows and to write a weekly column for the New Statesman. Awarded honorary degrees by QUB (1992), the University of Ulster (1992) and University of St Andrews (1993), he received the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for best television presenter (1993). As a lifelong republican (in the British sense) and vocal critic of class privilege, he refused a CBE in 1993.
Having previously produced workmanlike books, one on deprivation in the developing world, The poor of the earth (1976), the other on contemporary British politics, The Thatcher years (1987), he received a £135,000 advance for writing As it seemed to me (1995), a personally unrevealing memoir based on his meticulous notes of conversations with politicians dating to 1957. It readably fleshed out some of the most important incidents in late twentieth-century British politics, however, and sold well.
In 2001 he published A clouded peace, a serviceable political thriller set in Northern Ireland during and after the 1969–94 Troubles that reflected his scepticism of the peace process and disdain for the Northern Ireland office, southern Irish politicians, journalists, news presenters and the BBC's management. His characteristically acute diagnoses of Northern Ireland's ills always ended with a grim prescription, often at variance with what preceded it, as he was incapable of abiding the moral compromises attendant upon a negotiated end to the Troubles. Friends and colleagues avoided broaching a subject that brought out his worst traits.
Dogged by ill health in his last years, he died peacefully in his Surrey home on 7 November 2013. His will disposed of £816,563.