Sir Charles Wheeler

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Journalist and broadcaster

Born: 26 March, 1923, in Bremen, Germany.

Died: 4 July, 2008, in London, aged 85.

AS A BBC reporter, radio or TV, for six decades, Charles Wheeler covered the world's biggest news stories with a reassuring authority, integrity and humanity, giving him a reputation among many of his peers as the best journalist of his generation. The former Royal Marine's wiry physique, craggy features, expressively-bushy eyebrows and anarchic shock of increasingly-snowy hair were still appearing on our screens until shortly before he died.

Born only five months after the BBC was founded, Wheeler became, at his peak, the best-known face of BBC news reporting, working notably for Panorama and Newsnight. He was, however, never comfortable as a presenter, declining or sabotaging several attempts to turn him into a Richard Dimbleby or Robin Day, and was always happiest "in the field". As a Washington correspondent, he covered the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam protests and, with unmatched clarity, the web that was the Watergate scandal. From Berlin, he covered the Cold War during the 1950s and 60s, including the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary, and later the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Based in Brussels as Europe correspondent, he kept us informed on the new-fangled intricacies of the European Economic Community after Britain's accession.

Until well after retirement age, he was a "fireman", a foreign correspondent who jets in – or often sneaks or hikes in – to cover the fast-breaking stories. One of his most memorable came when he was already 68 years old, in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War when upwards of one million Kurdish refugees were fleeing Saddam Hussein's oppression in Iraq. Working for Newsnight, Wheeler hitch-hiked or trekked eight miles from the Iranian village of Piranshahr to a freezing mountain pass on the Iraq-Iran border to film and interview starving and terrified Kurds, some of whom were forced to bury their dead children under piles of rocks along the way. Newsnight staff in London said many of them wept openly when they saw his footage – as did countless viewers when it was aired – and it undoubtedly helped push Britain, the US and their allies to create "safe havens" for Kurdish refugees in Iraq.

As a newspaper correspondent on the same story, one of my outstanding memories is of Wheeler flat on his back on a ping-pong table, trying to grab some sleep in a freezing, dilapidated building in Piranshahr before setting off at dawn towards the border. I remember thinking I wonder if I'll still be up to this job at his age.

Though the accent was quite posh and the delivery often described as "silvery", Wheeler's modesty and humanity, his understated support for the underprivileged against the powerful, shone through in all his broadcasts. Though objective by nature – not even his closest friends knew his political leanings – he found simple ways of telling us something was badly wrong, as in his coverage of the civil rights movement and racist oppression. He told it like it was, without the hype that infects many of the self-aggrandising, often glamorous TV journalists of today. In recent years, he increasingly railed against the tabloidisation, dumbing-down or "pretentiousness" of TV news and current-affairs programmes and singled out Newsnight as one of the few shows he considered still serious. "Newsnight was a revolution I had longed for," he once said. "My time there was the best in a long working life. It added depth and clarity to television journalism and did so without being pretentious."

Named co-presenter of Newsnight along with Peter Snow, Wheeler was famously sacked after being unable, or refusing to make small talk, but merely twiddling his thumbs, during an agonisingly long technical hitch. It was all for the best. He was soon back out "in the field" where he belonged.

One of the current Newsnight presenters, Scot Gavin Esler, writing in the Independent on Sunday, said: "Two words sum up why I am a journalist: Charles Wheeler." Esler recalled how a BBC manager, insisting that journalists should become more "specialised," cited Wheeler as an example of a "specialist". "Wheeler pointed out that he was anything but," wrote Esler. "He was a generalist – someone who might not know what was going on in the world, but who did know how to find things out, and that was what reporting was all about. The hapless BBC manager was left speechless."

Selwyn Charles Cornelius-Wheeler was born in 1923 in the German city of Bremen, where his father, a former RAF wing commander, was working as a shipping agent. Charles witnessed the early rise of the Nazis before going to Cranbrook school in the English county of Kent. By the time he left, Britain was at war. Already keen on journalism, he worked as a copy boy at the tabloid Daily Sketch before enlisting in the Royal Marines in 1942 as a combat engineer.

He did not like to talk about his wartime experiences, but he rose to the rank of captain and was believed to have been involved in combat after the Normandy landings, as well as in intelligence-gathering (using his fluent German) in preparation for D-Day and later interrogating German prisoners-of-war. He joined the BBC's External (Overseas) Services in 1947 as a sub-editor in Bush House, London, the start of a career that would last more than 60 years, almost until his death.

Charles Wheeler was appointed CMG (Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George) in 2001 and knighted in 2006. He is survived by his second wife Dip Singh, from a distinguished Sikh family, whom he married in 1962 while he was BBC's South Asia correspondent in Delhi, and their two daughters Shirin and Marina, the latter married to London mayor Boris Johnson.

PHIL DAVISON