Sir Charles Wheeler was once described as “the reporters’ reporter”, someone who believed there was no substitute for being on the spot and talking to the people involved. Some critics accused him of editorialising, but he believed it was wrong to remain dispassionate about issues that were truly shocking.
He was born Selwyn Charles Cornelius-Wheeler on 15 March, 1923 in Germany and educated at Cranbrook School in Kent. His father worked for a shipping company in Hamburg and the young Wheeler experienced life under the Nazi regime.
He occasionally used to take bread to Jewish neighbours hiding out in the woods and his experience of totalitarian rule engendered a profound sympathy for the underdog.
He began his career in journalism as a tape boy on the old Daily Sketch newspaper before joining the Royal Marines in 1942.
He became part of a team led by Ian Fleming which collected technical intelligence ahead of the Allied invasion of Europe and he took part in the D-Day landings
After the war he joined the BBC where he began working on the sub-editors’ desk in the Latin American section of the World Service.
His command of German saw him move to Berlin in 1950 as the BBC’s German Service correspondent.
It was the beginning of the long Cold War period and Sir Charles, like other foreign correspondents, was banned from East Germany.
He later commented that there had been very little difference between the post-war Soviet regime in the East and the pre-war Nazi administration.
He filmed the final moments before the Russians crushed Hungary in 1956
Eastern Europe was in a state of turmoil as people who had suffered the effects of Nazi aggression now found themselves living under repressive Soviet control.
In October 1956 Sir Charles, now a producer on the Panorama programme, crossed the border between Austria and Hungary to cover what later became known as the Hungarian Uprising.
His team had Panorama’s only portable camera, which he’d been forbidden to take into Hungary. Sir Charles ignored the instruction and captured moving interviews with a population which believed it had thrown off the Soviet yoke. Just hours after he arrived back in London to edit his material, Russian tanks and planes had crushed the revolt.
“Most shattering of all,” he later recalled, “was having to listen to the BBC re-broadcast those despairing appeals to the West for help.”
Not for the first time he clashed with BBC management who decreed that an item on Suez should lead the following day’s Panorama rather than his precious film from Hungary.
He uncovered the torture of Palestinians in Kuwait in 1991
He was appointed as the BBC’s South East Asia Correspondent in 1958 covering, among other stories, the flight of the Dalai Lama after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959.
His frankness caused something of an international incident when, in one broadcast, he referred to Ceylon’s new prime minister as “an inexperienced eccentric at the head of a government of mediocrities”.
Ceylon threatened to leave the Commonwealth and only the intervention of the then Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, eventually calmed the situation.
He also upset Buckingham Palace when, after a gruelling day covering a tour of the area by the Queen, he was overheard in a pub saying “I wish that bloody woman would go home.”
‘It is unanimous: This is police brutality’
He returned to Berlin in 1962 for a three-year spell before moving to Washington, a posting that cemented his reputation.
It was a period of massive change in American society with increasing pressure from the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Sir Charles covered the race riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King, as well as the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Clash with BBC management
He was also on hand for Watergate. “You knew Nixon was at the centre of it,” he told his BBC audience. “You just had to keep peeling away the layers.”
The journalist returned to London for some stints as a presenter first on Panorama and then, in 1980, the newly launched Newsnight.
But he admitted he felt uncomfortable standing in front of a camera; his strengths lay out in the field, at the heart of the story, not in a sterile studio environment.
His skills were shown in his moving coverage of the persecution of Kurdish refugees by Saddam Hussein in 1991.
And after most reporters left Kuwait at the end of the first Gulf War, Wheeler went in to uncover the torture of Palestinians, gate crashing a hospital to confront Kuwaiti medical staff.
He was back on the Normandy beaches in 2004 reporting on the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Talking to refugees from the Gulf War
It was typical of the pieces he produced late in his career, looking back at pivotal moments of history that he had experienced first time around.
His distinct anti-authoritarian streak manifested itself in the sometimes prickly relationship he had with BBC managers.
He famously punctured the pomposity of the then deputy director general, John Birt, whose torrent of management speak ground to a halt after Sir Charles deftly questioned his plans for BBC News.
And he viewed the introduction of the corporation’s rolling news channel with ill-disguised horror, claiming that it was the BBC’s “worst idea yet.”
He went back on the attack in 2000 after declaring that the BBC had “lost its way with news” and had become too tabloid and obsessed with the cult of personality.
It was not a charge that anyone could level against Sir Charles. He remained modest about his own success claiming there was nothing clever about being a good reporter.
It was, he once said, simply a matter of luck; of being in the right place at the right time.