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Charles Wheeler, a personal reflection

Mark Urban | 17:12 UK time, Friday, 4 July 2008

wheelernixon.jpgAs a boy, I watched Charles Wheeler night after night covering the Watergate crisis in Washington.

He had gained my father's seal of approval - which put him in a pretty rare club as far as our household was concerned - and each night we would gather around the TV to hear Charles's latest take on the scandal that was engulfing President Richard Nixon. His words were delivered with clarity, gravity, and with beautiful precision.

In one of life's unexpected bonuses, our paths crossed years later at Newsnight. As a young assistant producer on the programme, I was too much in awe of him to initiate a conversation, and it had to wait years, until I came back as a reporter myself, for me to get to know him.

He wore a Combined Operations tie and this provided an opening for one conversation, in which he told me about his wartime service in the commandos. Charles, with his fluent German, had gravitated to intelligence work after the war, serving in Berlin at a time when it was the global epicentre of spying and double dealing.

Charles's experiences during the war (and indeed growing up in Germany in the 1930s) formed his very distinctive journalistic personality. He rejected cant, loathed injustice, and was completely intrepid. His attitude to officialdom was not one of childish scorn or contempt, but at the same time it was completely impossible for any interviewee to intimidate or over-awe him.

wheeler203.jpgAs Newsnight reporters, we rarely worked together side by side in the field, but one moment came in 1991 following the failure of the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Our respective producers were so keen to out-do one another that there was a danger of fierce rivalry building up between teams.

Charles and I could feel the tension, so we simply resolved to meet up each evening and tell one another everything we were up to, without our producers' knowledge. As well as being a great idealist in his reporting, he could be a great pragmatist too.

Every person is formed to a large extent by their times or experiences. But it is precisely the extraordinary trajectory of Charles's life - from Nazi Germany, to the Second World War or America's crises of the 1960s and 1970s - that will make him quite irreplaceable.


  • Comment number 1.


    R I P

  • Comment number 2.


    'His attitude to officialdom was not one of childish scorn or contempt, but at the same time it was completely impossible for any interviewee to intimidate or over-awe him.'

    I mention no names. They know who they are.

  • Comment number 3.


    Take down the picture walls. Shrink from the Big Hollywood Number reports, with musical accompanyment. Desist from game playing 'within the lie' and attend to Britain's dire situation, without fear or favour. Zimbabwe is not the issue, it is THE 'MUGABE' WITHIN: Britain's nihilistic, destructive governance.

  • Comment number 4.

    Very sincerely put Mark and Barrie, and also Martha elsewhere. Charles Wheeler will be much missed, not least by NewsN viewers, and our sympathies must go to his family and friends.
    Love and best wishes from Grumpy Jon.

  • Comment number 5.

    In an age when most TV reporters are third-rate hacks who wave their arms around like demented marionettes for a dumbed down audience, Charles Wheeler was the personification of what intelligent journalism should be. As much as I like Paxo, he's got a long way to go before reaching Wheeler's level.

  • Comment number 6.

    Rest in Peace, Charles Wheeler...

  • Comment number 7.

    I was also saddened by the news of this great journalist’s death last night. His reports and documentaries were always insightful, intelligent, thought-provoking and often moving.
    A number of years ago, I was delighted to receive a personal handwritten reply from Mr Wheeler after he had written to commend a programme which reassessed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. It had described how supporters of Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, had deliberately caused the peace negotiations to end the Vietnan conflict to stutter through the last months of his presidency. Thus Nixon, not Johnson, would be seen as the successful peacemaker. In his reply, Mr Wheeler was kind enough to clarify a number of questions I raised regarding these events.
    Many would not have bothered to take the time and trouble to do this. His personal postcard even included his home address, as if indicating a welcome of further correspondence. It reflected the fact that he truly cared about the issues he reported. He will be sorely missed.

  • Comment number 8.

    I do agree with the analysis that he was a towering figure in journalism.

    My favourite piece, and I think I have my facts straight, was on Patty Hearst the heiress who got caught up in the Symbionese Liberation Army.

    The FBI and police had surrounded a wooden building and some guy with a bull horn said "Come out with your hands up or we fire .... Fire!".

    Then they fired so many bullets the building collapsed. Hearst was not in the building.

    Wheeler thought it was possible the FBI did not want any hero figures like Hearst emerging to challenge the status quo.

    It was quite courageous to say that and he had the gravitas that he could get away with it. He did call it as he saw it.


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