Sir Charles Wheeler, the greatest broadcasting reporter of our time

Sir Charles Wheeler who died of lung cancer yesterday aged 85 had no connection with Ireland and as far as I remember, never reported there. But wherever great reporting is valued, he will be remembered. Highlights give just a flavour of some of the big events he covered.

As a young reporter I knew Charles on Newsnight when I was floundering in the big world, fresh out of Belfast where you could lean over and touch the story. When he praised my reports at the birth of Solidarity in Poland in 1980, I nearly passed out with pride. I’ll never forget a hilarious dinner with him in a Georgian restaurant in Moscow. He could be a great host and a real charmer – and he could be devastating.

The Radio 4 programme, “Wheeler in his own words” with Jeremy Paxman captures the spirit of the man and the sweep of his career, from the fall of Hitler to the fall of the Berlin Wall, on to Iraq and then back in time to first hand witnesses of WW2. Next week, you can hear the last programme he’d finished just before his death, a revisiting of the story of the Dalai Lama he had first covered in 1959.Charles had the full set of the TV reporter’s gifts. Physically he was brave and stayed calm under fire. He had fought at D Day. In a few eloquent, incisive phrases , he could indict Nixon, question the conduct of the Vietnam war and convey the cauldron of clashing emotions as blacks rioted in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination. “I don’t think we should have tried to be dispassionate,” he said. “I came to believe that violence was justified in a riot because it made white America listen.” Yet he would have agreed with that other great correspondent James Cameron’s maxim: “give people the information to allow them to disagree with you.”

Editorialiser or analyst? Where does one end and the other begin? It’s not that he was committed a priori to anything other than profound human sympathy and a broad view of civilised behaviour, learned the hard way growing up in Germany in the shadow of Hitler. But he had the intellectual clarity to make very big judgments quicker than anyone around and express them simply, with great authority.

I remember him questioning Robert Macnamara, the Defense Secretary responsible for the American build-up and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam who later recanted. Charles would not let him off the hook . Appearing to crack, Macnamara threatened to walk out. Charles simply said, “Oh no, no no.” Macnamara subsided and stayed the course.

He had the extremely rare gift of thinking aloud naturally on camera. His crisp writing to picture and elegant delivery matched his piercing judgment. Technically, this made him a great TV reporter. In the 60s to late 80s in his heyday, the reporter seldom chatted live with the presenter as they do, invariably, today. Then, you summed up or did a bridging link in 40 seconds max. Every word counted.

Satellite was rare and massively expensive. TV links looked like a tank regiment on manoeuvres and no good for hot situations. Usually you worked on film. Judgments had to survive the time it took to drive back to base. The longer you banged on to camera, the longer the film took to process and the closer you came to deadline. So Charlie kept it tight, often in one take, and did so with inimitable style.

Back in the office he sought out the cleverest youngsters, who in turn kept him safe when they were promoted.

His personal style, well. Gentle with juniors, ( usually), challenging to seniors, winsome to women. Terrifying to jobsworths by pursing his already thin lips and coming out with either a mischievous or piercing comment.

But they respected him because he never stooped to petty office politics. His one failure was everybody else’s too, Brussels, where they drafted him in to bring it to life. Even for Sir Charles, that was too much!

Towards the end, he said he wanted to be remembered as part of the team.

Sorry, Charles, that’s one wish impossible to grant, even to you.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London