Why the BBC has lost one of the finest reporters in its history

IT WAS as a scene with which Charles Wheeler might have been uncomfortable; the great and good of British Broadcasting came to commemorate his life which ended last year at 85.  He was the ‘reporter’s reporter’, the ultimate broadcast craftsman whose stunning, often engaged work will live for many years to come, writes John Mair.

Sir Charles Wheeler (1923 - 2008)The BBC Director General, Mark Thompson was there, so too senior executives past and present, including Jana Bennett (Director of Vision), Nigel Chapman (Director of the World Service), Sir John Tusa (one of Wheeler’s predecessors), Tony Hall (formerly Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC and now running the Royal Opera House), Tim Gardam (the former editor of ‘Newsnight’ and Controller of Programmes at Both Channel Four and Five), and Sir Jeremy Isaacs, Channel Four’s Founding father.

The on screen faces were out in force, too.  David Dimbleby (significantly not in the U.S on Obama Day), Peter Snow, Angela Rippon, Peter Jay, John Cole and more.  The broadcasting family were out in their droves to salute the master.  Sir Charles’ wife and two daughters, Shirin and Marina paid tribute.  Marina’s husband, London Mayor Boris Johnson (complete with bicycle bag) was present, but in a non-speaking role.  Everywhere you turned there were the faces that made the modern BBC.

Director General Thompson had worked with Sir Charles as a young producer on Newsnight.  He was unstinting in his admiration, “the finest reporter in the BBC’s history.  He told the story of the twentieth century in beautiful sparse English”.  Thompson did not disguise Wheeler’s faults; he could be very cantankerous, but always for a cause.  “He hated mediocrity” and “valued every word”.  Hence he was willing to row “with anybody at any time” over quality.Hard to believe, but Wheeler started his journalistic career nearly seven decades ago as copy on the Daily Skeith, and then the BBC where he became the most distinguished foreign correspondent ever-in Germany, South East Asia, Germany again and then memorably in the USA during the Johnson and Nixon eras.

His was a journalism of commitment.  You could always tell a Charles Wheeler piece.  As his daughter Shirin put it in her address, “He was quietly outraged by injustice”.  Sometimes not so quietly.  The surprising Charles Wheeler came out in her and her sister Marina’s tribute: “The first class human being” and the man who loved nothing more after a foreign filming trip than to go digging in his garden.  Today, they say they fell closest to him there.

Wheeler was a one off.  Making programmes and programmes of quality and commitment – even into his 85th year.  He loved reporting, loved finding out new things, and had the great journalist’s knack of causing mischief whilst telling great stories.  Management at the BBC often attracted his ire. He once very famously cut the new broom John Birt down to size in a public meeting over his management speak. Lord Birt did not attend the Memorial.

It was only a pity the BBC did not broadcast the memorial service. It had all the ingredients that are the finest in Britain, including far too many ‘hideously white’ faces, pomp and much ceremony. Sir Charles Wheeler CMG as a trouble maker and superb journalist to the bitter end. One wonders what he would have made of his Abbey Salute. A quiet pride or anger at the humbug?

  • John Mair is a senior lecturer in journalism at Coventry University and has had a long and distinguished career working for many media outlets and winning many accolades for his reporting.  He is the organiser of the popular media lecture series, Coventry Conversation.
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