ARTS / Show People: A roving national monument: 38. Charles Wheeler

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The Independent Culture
THE WALL near the front door is festooned with hundreds, maybe thousands, of press passes and souvenirs from around the world. Your eye catches a badge in support of Colonel Oliver North: 'Serving With Pride'. The display is topped off with a grotesque, grinning mask of Richard Nixon. You are entering the home of a foreign correspondent.

Not just any foreign correspondent. The face that peers out from the press passes - weathered beneath a shock of grey hair and yet seemingly unchanged over the years - belongs to a man of whom John Simpson, the BBC's Foreign Editor, says: 'It's as though Nature designed the perfect foreign correspondent and came up with Charles Wheeler.'

Nature did not appear to have that in mind when Wheeler, born in Bremen (his father was a Wing Commander) in 1923 but educated in Kent, was a humble copyboy on the Daily Sketch before the war. Unable to get back into Fleet Street after serving with the Royal Marines, he pitched up at the BBC in 1947 - 'someone said they'd take anyone'. He went on to take many of the top current-affairs jobs - co-producer and presenter of Panorama, correspondent in Brussels, Washington, Berlin and Asia. Sitting back in his comfortable Holland Park drawing-room, he is modest about his influence. 'Most of the stuff one does goes in one ear and out the other.' Newsnight presenter Francine Stock begs to differ, calling Wheeler a 'national monument'.

So what is it about this slight, wiry man whose features bring Samuel Beckett to mind, that inspires such reverence? He is certainly not without flaws. His rigorous style of questioning can seem intrusive. In the aftermath of the Gulf war, he got into official hot water after reporting on the torture of Palestinians in Kuwait (he was the only journalist refused a visa to return on the anniversary of the war). And, by his own admission, Wheeler does not make a good anchorman (he was sacked as a Newsnight presenter).

But watching him in action, you see why he is still held in such high regard. Last month, he covered the Democratic Convention for Newsnight. Whether interviewing the 'rag-tag army' of Jerry Brown supporters or talking live to the studio against a backdrop of rowdy protests, Wheeler maintained an air of cool authority. He is the consummate opening batsman, never ruffled by the short stuff.

On 16 June, he delivered a gripping half-hour Newsnight report from Virginia on the execution for rape and murder of Roger Coleman, who protested his innocence till the end. As the state prosecutor repeated what he had told the jury - a questionable version of events leading up to the murder - Wheeler briefly, but tellingly, became animated: 'That's pure supposition on your part, it's your imagination'. The urbane Southern lawyer began to shift in his chair and stammer about Coleman's 'track record'. He later told Wheeler he had never experienced such a grilling before. 'Lesser mortals would have turned it into a eulogy of Coleman,' Stock observes, 'but Charles emphasised that it was the system of justice that was flawed.'

This dispassion is the key to good television journalism. Tim Gardam, editor of Newsnight, says: 'Charles makes judgements without being judgemental,' while John Simpson maintains that Wheeler 'doesn't belong to any school of thought and doesn't fall for the old pals' act beloved of diplomats and ministers'.

Wheeler says impartiality has to be 'a conscious effort. There is no point in talking to the converted. What you've got to do is persuade people who are natural sceptics that there is a case there. If you go overboard and are too partisan, there's really no point in doing it.'

It is precisely because Wheeler's reports never go overboard that they stick in the mind and are discussed in offices the next morning. Viewers seem to trust him, perhaps because he has a reassuringly lived-in voice and lacks the narcissistic air of so many on television. As Stock says, 'he doesn't wear 'television' around his shoulders like a mantle'. But if television is not in the Wheeler blood, it shows signs of running in the family: Shirin, one of two daughters from his first marriage, is an assistant producer for Newsroom South East.

After covering the American presidential elections in November, Wheeler has no plans to retire. As his seventieth birthday approaches, he is hardly slowing down - witness his nights on the mountains with the Kurds last year. His reports were said to be influential in spurring John Major to call for a safe-havens policy. John Simpson says: 'He does things that would make younger men pale.'

Anyone who doubts the usefulness of Wheeler's decades of experience in the fast-moving world of television news didn't see his report on the recent riots in Los Angeles. In it he presented some archive footage from the Watts riots of 1965. The reporter: Charles Wheeler.

Wheeler covers the Republican Convention for 'Newsnight' from 17 August.