My Mentor: Martin Bell On Charles Wheeler

'He broke the cold-blooded BBC mode. if he was shocked, you knew it'
Click to follow

What was remarkable about it was not only that every word was so carefully chosen, but that he broke the old, cold-blooded, dispassionate BBC mode, the "on the one hand this ... on the other hand that ... only time will tell". If he was shocked by something, you knew that he was shocked.

I met him when he was chief Washington correspondent and I was one of the firemen coming in for the 1968 democratic convention. He did the politics on the convention floor and I, as the runabout man, did the riots in the street.

I was in awe. We were both extremely busy but he always put me at my ease. He was incredibly helpful and absolutely brilliant at leading and working with a team, which isn't always the case with people in television news. So often there's an awful lot of rivalry and competition between correspondents. You never felt that with Charles; he was secure in his own pre-eminence.

I was too shy to ask for advice. I just watched what he did and how he did it. I realised that there is no obligation to be neutral between good and evil. I was never a campaigning journalist but you could tell that Charles cared about the people he was reporting on; he wasn't remote and dispassionate, and that certainly affected me later in life.

If you look at the stuff he did on the civil rights movement in the States in the 1960s you can imagine the sharp intakes of breath there must have been at the headquarters of BBC News because he pushed the boundaries and the limits.

I doubt if TV news on any channel has produced a better reporter. Also, he was an incredibly brave man; none of us had to do what he did before getting into journalism, which was to be a combat engineer in the Normandy landings. I see him as a truly British hero and a role model for all television journalists to this day.

  • More about:
  • BBC