Sir Charles Wheeler 

23 September 2008

When the young Charles Wheeler was a lad running errands at the Daily Sketch in 1930’s London, no one then would have have guessed that he would one day become British television’s greatest reporter-journalist. In a career which straddled newspaper, radio and television (the latter two for almost 40 years, and all for the BBC) the young Wheeler, at 17 inspired by a film report to become a journalist, was heading for one of the most illustrious careers of any broadcaster. He was ultimately the BBC’s longest-serving foreign correspondent, born just one year after the BBC itself. It was with much sadness in the industry and among the audience that his death was announced on 4th July 2008.

Selwyn Charles Cornelius-Wheeler was born on March 15 1923 in Bremen, Germany. His father was a former RAF Wing Commander, later an expatriate worker for the British Council in Germany and also for a Hamburg-based shipping company. Charles was later educated at Cranbrook School in Kent but not before experiencing the harshness of the Nazi regime, where he is recorded as saying he took bread to Jewish neighbours hidden in the woods. There is every chance that his early experience of living under such a totalitarian state engendered in the young Wheeler compassion and sympathy for any underclass. He developed a remarkable command of the English language and his superior intelligence coupled with an outspoken drive to tell it like it is, led him to become exemplary to journalists the world over.

His tape boy days on the ‘Sketch’ ended in 1942 when Wheeler joined the Royal Marines, rising to the rank of Captain. He was part of a secret naval intelligence unit directed by Ian Fleming, and participated in the Allied Normandy Landings as second-in-command to Patrick Dalzel-Job, one of the people upon whom Fleming supposedly based James Bond.

After the war the newly-demobbed Wheeler joined the BBC where in 1947 he began working at the sub-editors’ desk in the Latin American section of the World Service. In 1950 his command of German saw him in Berlin as correspondent for the BBC’s German Service. It was the beginning of the long Cold War period and Charles, like other foreign correspondents, was banned from East Germany. He later commented that there had been very little difference between the post-war Soviet regime in the East and the pre-war Nazi administration.

After three years and over his own protests, he was brought back to London to serve BBC Radio as a ‘writer of talks’. Increasingly frustrated by this desk work he decided in 1956 to move to television when Panorama offered him a job as a producer.

Eastern Europe was in a state of turmoil as people who had suffered the effects of Nazi aggression now found themselves living under repressive Soviet control. In October 1956 Wheeler crossed the border between Austria and Hungary to cover what later became known as the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet domination. His team had Panorama’s only portable camera which he’d been forbidden to take into Hungary. He ignored the instruction and captured moving interviews with a population which believed it had thrown off the Soviet yoke. Within hours of arriving back in London to edit his material, incoming Russian tanks and planes had crushed the revolt

In 1958 he moved to New Delhi as the BBC’s South Asia correspondent. His time there was marked particularly by his coverage of the secret flight of the Dalai Lama from Tibet after the Chinese invasion of 1959.

From 1962 he spent three years in Berlin, still in the grip of the Cold War and by now more concretely divided by the wall erected by the East German authorities. Once again he had arrived for the closing years of an ancient regime: the architect of West Germany’s post-war recovery, Konrad Adenauer, remained in his post as Chancellor at the age of 86 on the unusual condition that he retire by the time he was 90. During Adenauer’s increasingly frantic final attempts to complete his political monument, Wheeler did his best to convey the significance of what was happening to a British audience.

It was hard material for any reporter to shape, and the absence of background knowledge on the part of listeners generated a complete lack of interest among many. It usually needed something like a spectacular escape across the wall to rouse audience attention, so it was probably with some relief that Wheeler packed his bags in 1965 to move to Washington and the job which was to secure his reputation.

He covered an era of seismic change in the US; a time when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, President Nixon resigned over Watergate and the Beatles took U.S. teenagers by storm. As in most professions luck played its part and Wheeler took up his new posting just as America was becoming the world news centre. President Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation, having raised black expectations, seemed unable to meet them at anything like an acceptable pace.

Wheeler found himself criss-crossing the country – from voting protests in Alabama to anti-segregation marches in Chicago and on to the devastating riots in the Watts area of Los Angeles in which 34 people died. In a succession of memorable reports he not only dealt with the ‘spot news’ but sent interviews and a level of background research that gave a British audience a much clearer understanding.

He found himself in the midst of the rapidly accelerating opposition to the Vietnam War and the radicalisation of America’s universities. Night after night Wheeler chronicled first the protest movement that drove Johnson from the White House and then the divisive campaign that irreparably split the Democratic Party and brought Richard Nixon to the presidency in the 1968 elections. It made him one of broadcasting’s best-known names and voices. He was on hand for Watergate. “You knew Nixon was at the centre of it,” he told his BBC audience. “You just had to keep peeling away the layers.”

Wheeler had the inevitable rows with BBC managers, such as in 1956, when they ruled that an item on Suez should lead the following day’s Panorama rather than his dramatic film from Hungary. As he was the first to acknowledge, nitpicking imperatives of production did not enthrall him: he was notorious for his indifference to deadlines.

Wheeler’s frankness caused something of an international incident when in one broadcast he referred to Ceylon’s new prime minister as “an inexperienced eccentric at the head of a government of mediocrities”. Ceylon threatened to leave the Commonwealth and only the intervention of the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan calmed the situation. He also upset Buckingham Palace when, after a gruelling day covering a tour by the Queen, he was overheard in a pub saying “I wish that bloody woman would go home.”

His observation of Nixon in office tended to confirm the view Wheeler had formed of him as vice-president, years before. When guiding him on a tour of Berlin he found him “weird and totally mad”. This judgment was confirmed during the 1972 Republican convention when Wheeler was inadvertently given a copy of the minute-by-minute stage management of the President’s re-nomination, even down to the length of the ‘spontaneous’ applause. Firmly resisting all official efforts to stop him, he gave a hilarious précis of the arrangements to that evening’s viewers.

It should have been a warning of the sequence of dirty tricks and illegalities that was to become the Watergate scandal. Newsdesks in Britain and the rest of Europe were curiously late waking up to the dimensions of the issue and to a degree their attention was eventually caught by the reports Wheeler sent back. Not least of his professional skills was to hone what was, even for Americans, a fairly incomprehensible issue into a pithy summary.

Wheeler did not stay to see Nixon forced from office. With Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 he became European correspondent. In February 1974 Harold Wilson’s Labour party was returned to power and Wheeler found himself trying to explain the government’s endless haggling over the size of Britain’s contribution to the community budget. After a massive affirmative vote in the 1975 referendum, public interest in Europe soon dwindled and Wheeler rejoined Panorama in 1977.

The journalist returned to London for some stints as a presenter, first on Panorama and then in the mid-seventies on the BBC evening news programmes like Newsday and in 1980 on the newly launched Newsnight. But, by his own admission, he was less comfortable standing in front of a camera; his strengths lay out in the field at the heart of the story, not in the sterile environment of News Studio N2 at BBC Television Centre or at Lime Grove where BBC Current Affairs programmes were based.

Roaming work was the format best suited to his journalistic style. It allowed him sufficient preparation and a long enough segment to give the viewer a carefully considered and stylish perspective. And Wheeler’s on-screen presence, simultaneously professorial and incisive, was perfectly suited to this more analytical approach. He could at times be a ferocious interviewer, politely refusing to let the victim evade or obfuscate.

It may have been this quality that persuaded the BBC he would be the ideal presenter for Newsnight but the situation was hopeless and his distaste for the apparent omniscience required in a front man was evident. The assignment ended in tears when in the middle of some mammoth technical disaster, Wheeler told the audience he had no idea what was going on and simply sat mutely while it was sorted out. He was, as he later acknowledged, quite rightly sacked.

This was to the benefit of both BBC and viewers. It put him back on the road for Newsnight. His reports soon came rolling in from the disintegrating Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War, Kurdistan and almost anywhere that suffering humanity needed a concerned and effective witness. His skills were shown in his moving coverage of the persecution of Kurdish refugees by Saddam Hussein in 1991 and when most reporters had left Kuwait at the end of the first Gulf War, Wheeler went in to uncover the torture of Palestinians, gatecrashing a hospital to confront Kuwaiti medical staff.

Over the years his documentaries included the Kennedy Legacy (1970), Battle for Berlin (1985), the Legacy of Martin Luther King (1993) and Coming Home (2006). In 1955 his book The East German Rising, co-written with Stefan Brant was published. As the reports accumulated so they attracted well-earned professional recognition. His many awards included Journalist of the Year (1988) from the Royal Television Society, its International Documentary Award (1989) and a special commendation (1992). The Broadcasting Press Guild presented him with its Harvey Lee Award (1995) and made him television journalist of the year in 1996.

Though a distinct anti-authoritarian streak manifested itself in the sometimes prickly relationship he had with BBC managers. He famously punctured the pomposity of the then deputy director general John Birt, whose torrent of management-speak ground to a halt after Sir Charles deftly questioned his plans for BBC News.

Wheeler viewed the introduction of the corporation’s rolling news channel with ill-disguised horror, claiming that it was the BBC’s “worst idea yet.” He went back on the attack in 2000 declaring that the BBC had “lost its way with news”, was too tabloid, and obsessed with the cult of personality, not a charge that anyone could level against Sir Charles. He remained modest about his own success claiming there was nothing clever about being a good reporter. It was, he once said, simply a matter of luck; of being in the right place at the right time. He was appointed a CMG in 2001.

Wheeler was back on the Normandy beaches in 2004 reporting on the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Open University and in 2006 Birthday Honours was knighted for services to broadcasting and journalism overseas. BBC World editors appointed Charles Wheeler as the first presenter-interviewer of Dateline London a discussion programme, now a regular BBC News Channel feature.

He was active in his later years as a presenter of documentaries on Radio 4 and a contributor to the network’s From Our Own Correspondent series. He was working on a programme about the Dalai Lama until a few weeks before his death. He was married to Dip Singh, of Sikh Indian descent (who survives him) and the couple had two daughters – the barrister Marina Wheeler (the wife of Boris Johnson, current Mayor of London) and Shirin Wheeler, the BBC’s Brussels correspondent.

Former colleagues poured tribute after tribute on Wheeler, on the news of his passing. Richard Tait, a former editor of Newsnight, headed the queue: “Wheeler was the greatest reporter of the television age, who had the ability to communicate integrity to the audience. You believed him because he was an honest, rigorous and passionate journalist who loved his profession. Everyone who met him came away with their belief in journalism in some cases restored or reinforced.”

“That’s why he was so important – 60 years of reporting,” said Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer, who worked with Wheeler in his first BBC job at the World Service and later in the mid-Eighties on Newsnight where they spent five weeks together filming in the Soviet Union. At the BBC, Wheeler became an exemplar for the tradition of a field correspondent who gathers first-hand information and then gives viewers the benefit of his judgment and expertise. “Nobody, nobody, nobody is above him,” said Damazer. “He stands as the single, principal, biggest and greatest embodiment of the importance of the reporter, as opposed to any other aspect of broadcast journalism and nobody in the history of broadcasting beat it.”

His death is particularly felt among the generation of journalists, many now in the upper reaches of the BBC’s hierarchy, who had first watched his reports from Washington as children on black and white television and later felt privileged to work with him throughout their own careers. “We were all both old enough to know how far back it goes and young enough to have worked with him in his prime of primes,” said Damazer. “He connects the point when we were 11 or 12 and didn’t know where we were going with our lives and the point where we are 53 and doing completely different things. He spans us as well. Our cohort has a real sense of loss here that some people might not really grip.”

Wheeler is particularly remembered for his on-air presence, particularly his voice. Former colleague, Newsnight‘s Gavin Esler said: “He always broadcast the way he spoke – he never raised his voice. A voice very distinctive and conversational and almost very confiding because it was so quiet. What Charles did was explain very difficult things to people in very simple language.” He was a great inspiration to generations of young journalists like Esler and Vivian White of Newsday and Panorama, many of whom are now at the pinnacles of their own distinguished careers.

In June 2006 Charles Wheeler announced he had discovered that a painting by Alessandro Allori of Eleonora of Toledo, the wife of Cosimo de Medici, which had been given to him in Berlin as a wedding present in 1952, had been looted during World War II. Via the Commission for Looted Art in Europe it was returned to its legitimate owner, the Gemäldegalerie of Berlin, from whose possession it had been absent since 1944.

A day after his death BBC Radio 4 broadcast a special tribute programme, Charles Wheeler In His Own Words and BBC4 tv transmitted several excellent Wheeler documentaries. These were among a plethora of TV and radio tributes.

While there is a wealth of experience among BBC foreign affairs correspondents of today, without Wheeler’s ability to explain the context of the almost inexplicable, his absence today shows. Following the flare-up on 7th August 2008, when Georgia sent its army to consolidate control of South Ossetia – a region nominally part of Georgia but with de facto independence and where a majority of people hold Russian passports, Wheeler was notable by his absence.

Former colleagues recall an extraordinarily gifted television writer who had an apparently innate mastery of the medium’s requirements for combining his narrative with on screen images. “He wrote for television better than anyone I have worked with,” said long-time BBC colleague Tim Gardam, now principle of St Anne’s College, Oxford. “With extraordinary economy and precision, he was a master of clear reportage.” Gardam also admired Wheeler’s professionalism in easily shifting between hard news reporting and constructing documentaries.

“Charles would not be informed by the conventional wisdom of what the story was,” said Gardam. “He made judgements with the evidence of his own eyes and listening to people rather than just following the herd of journalists gossiping in the bar in the evening about what they thought the story was.”

Vin Ray, now head of the BBC College of Journalism recalls, “He was extremely keen on making sure that nothing that he did was even remotely slapdash in any way or second hand. He was really quite pernickety in that sense and if he hadn’t found it out himself, the producer would be dispatched to check that it was correct and he would want to know about the sources.”

Wheeler left a lasting impression on more than one generation of “hapless producers” who worked with him. He was known to have a temper and to be impatient with those he felt were not able to meet his exacting standards or who were authority figures obstructing a story. Such demands for high standards, encouraged many to do what several now feel was their best work, when they collaborated with him. Mark Damazer again: “However famous he was, however celebrated he was, right until the end if he was with a good production team and he thought you were good, he was remarkably selfless and a tremendous team player in terms of making these things happen.”

More from Tim Gardam: “He was a very kind man. Charles has a reputation as fierce – and he was fierce as a journalist. When you were working with him as a producer he expected the best and there were great rows about how a film should go or how a piece should be structured. “Charles did always have a rumbustious relationship with his producers. But he did that because he saw the producer absolutely as an equal and when I think about how young and gullible and green I was and how experienced he was, his forbearance and the way he would treat you as an equal and work on the story together was an extraordinary generosity.”

It is fitting to give the last word on Wheeler, to BBC Director-General Mark Thompson: “To audiences and to his colleagues alike Charles Wheeler was simply a legend. His integrity, his authority and his humanity graced the BBC’s airwaves over many decades. Charles Wheeler is utterly irreplaceable.”

Sir Charles Wheeler CMG, BBC television’s most renowned correspondent, died from lung cancer at home on Friday 4th July 2008 aged 85.

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