Charles Wheeler, the reporter who defined BBC news, dies at 85
Saturday 05 July 2008
Charles Wheeler, who reported the world for the BBC with a fearlessness and integrity that helped to define the corporation's journalistic reputation, has died at the age of 85.
He was the BBC's Washington correspondent during the 1960s, displaying remarkable bravery in covering the civil rights movement, including the assassination of Martin Luther King. He had no qualms about challenging those in power, once provoking an international incident when describing the new prime minister of Ceylon as "an inexperienced eccentric at the head of a government of mediocrities".
He became a figurehead of BBC journalism and an inspiration to a generation of correspondents, but did not hesitate to criticise his employers for "dumbing down" or when he thought the organisation might have "lost its way" with news. Wheeler could do this, and get away with it, because he was regarded with awe within the corporation. It was a reputation earned for his coverage of stories such as Watergate, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the flight from Tibet of the Dalai Lama. His presence at the heart of the BBC was further reinforced by his hosting of Panorama and Newsnight, though he was at his best when out in the field.
In a tribute yesterday, Mark Thompson, the BBC director general, said he was "utterly irreplaceable".
Mark Byford, head of BBC journalism, described him as "the greatest broadcast journalist of his generation".
Wheeler remained a working journalist almost until the last, compiling a programme for Radio 4 on the Dalai Lama. Gavin Esler, the Newsnight presenter, wrote in The Independent that Wheeler was his mentor, "the reporter's reporter ... a very easy person to become a friend of. That's part of his great reporter's art: people like him."
Martin Bell, the war correspondent-turned-MP, also speaking when Wheeler was alive, described him as "a truly British hero and a role model for all television journalists to this day".
Wheeler had some reservations about the way television news has developed, feeling uncomfortable about the cult of personality within the medium and preferring to commentate on footage in voiceover rather than presenting pieces to camera.
He began his media career in print, working as a teaboy for the Daily Sketch before joining the BBC shortly after the Second World War as a sub-editor on the Latin America service. He reported from Germany in the 1950s before becoming the Delhi-based South Asia correspondent in 1958, where he met his wife, Dip Singh. The couple had two daughters, one of whom, Marina, is married to Boris Johnson, the London Mayor.
Wheeler was almost unrivalled in his understanding of American politics. When Ronald Reagan's government bombed Libya in 1986, he took the next flight to Washington to deliver a report for Newsnight. Richard Tait, who was the programme's editor, later observed: "He delivered the report with the authoritative analysis which shows why I am not the only Newsnight editor to believe Charles is the greatest reporter of the television age."
The lasting memory of Wheeler's work for many viewers will be his comment on Newsnight to a young Jeremy Paxman who was struggling to report the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 amid the wild celebrations going on around him. "Jeremy," he said from the studio, "this is pure Monty Python."
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