My Mentor: Gavin Esler on Charles Wheeler

'He's a very easy person to become a friend of. that's part of his great reporter's art'
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Charles Wheeler was the first journalist I was ever aware of when I was a kid. I remember watching his reports of some of the worst violence of the civil rights movement in America with absolute fascination.

At 18 I had been scheduled to go to Edinburgh medical school but, partly as a result of some of the things I'd seen Charles do, I had always wondered whether I could be a TV journalist. At the last moment I decided to do arts instead of medicine.

A few years later I got a three-week contract with Newsnight, and there was Charles Wheeler. Charles was a hero of mine long before I ever met him and you would expect to be awed to meet your heroes, but he's a very easy person to become a friend of. That's part of his great reporter's art: people like him.

After a day or two a story came up about some crisis on a tiny island in the South Pacific, of which I knew nothing. I did a report on that and Charles helped me. He gave me advice about how to look on television and what to do, and he's been kind to me ever since.

I've come across Charles at odd stages of my career and he's always been extraordinary. When I was making a film about the CIA, Charles had a look at it for me. He said: "Well, you've got all the bits there. But why don't you just boldly assert what you've found out, and then go into the proof?"

Charles was and is the reporter's reporter. He always went to the spot and talked to the people who were in the news. I think that's the reason why he's been such a big influence on a generation of journalists. I hope when I'm in my 80s I'm half as sprightly as he is.

Gavin Esler is a Newsnight presenter