BBC director general Mark Thompson has described Sir Charles Wheeler as the ‘the best reporter in the BBC’s history’ when he led the tributes at a memorial service held at Westminster Abbey today.
The “reporters’ reporter” died last year after a career which saw him heralded as the ultimate broadcast journalism craftsman.
As well as Thompson, attendees at today’s service included BBC director of vision Jana Bennett, director of the World Service Nigel Chapman, Sir John Tusa, former BBC director of news and current affairs Tony Hall, former editor of Newsnight Tim Gardam and Channel 4 founding father Sir Jeremy Isaacs.
The on-screen faces were out in force too, including David Dimbleby, Peter Snow, Angela Rippon, Peter Jay and John Cole.
Sir Charles’s wife and two daughters, Shirin and Marina paid their own tributes. Marina’s husband London Mayor Boris Johnson – complete with bicycle bag – was present but did not speak.
Thompson had worked with Wheeler as a young producer on Newsnight. He was unstinting in his admiration for “‘the finest reporter in the BBC’s history”. He said that Wheeler “told the story of the 20th century in beautiful sparse English”.
Thompson admitted that Wheeler “could be very canterkerous but always for a cause”. He said he “hated mediocrity” and “valued every word”. Hence he was willing to row “with anybody at any time over quality”.
Wheeler started his journalistic career nearly seven decades ago as copy boy on the Daily Sketch before joining the BBC where he would become its most distinguished foreign correspondent ever in Germany, South East Asia, Germany again and then, most memorably, in the US during the Johnson and Nixon eras.
His daughter Shirin said in her address: “He was quietly outraged by injustice.”
In her and her sister Marina’s tribute she described Wheeler as a “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 said, they feel closest to him there.
Wheeler was a one off – making 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 while 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.