Andrew Harrison
October 2016.

Who’s the greatest journalist of all time?

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This is a very difficult question. There are so many journalists with a range of knowledge and skills. But I would name Charles Wheeler, who may not have been an international name but was admired and trusted by professionals and the public who were familiar with his work. He joined the BBC in 1947 and went on to become the corporation’s longest serving foreign correspondent, serving until his passing in July 2008.

Journalists are often accused of being overly-deferential in their treatment of establishment figures, but Wheeler stands out as someone entirely different. Reporting with balance and conviction, he made programmes that relied on direct experience and looked with scorn on the cosy off-the-record briefings preferred by diplomats, ministers and many of his peers. Safe to say, he did not hold politicians in high regard and made a conscious effort to avoid meeting them in a social setting.

Dedicated, critical and not without wit, Wheeler was the reporter’s reporter. “I can’t believe how lucky I am to be here,” he said on his 68th birthday, spent in a burnt-out Kuwait City hotel. “Something awful might have happened to me — like retirement.”

His work not only informed but made a real difference. From Tibet’s 1959 uprising and Saddam Hussein’s persecution of the Kurds in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, to the anti-Vietnam war protests and Martin Luther King’s assassination, Wheeler’s reportage invariably cut through the spin. His stories were stories we could all trust. Surely, that is the raison d’etre of the journalist?

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