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Page last updated at 23:07 GMT, Saturday, 12 July 2008 00:07 UK

The facts and a good story

Charles Wheeler with film stock cannisters


Charles Wheeler was a scrupulous reporter who tirelessly pursued the truth. But on one occasion, a story that seemed far-fetched turned out to be true after all, says Lisa Jardine.

Never take a story at face value. That has to be the watchword, for those of us whose job it is to paint a vivid picture of past events.

Whether historians or journalists, we have a responsibility to sift through the stories we are told - even those recounted by eye-witnesses - collating them with the documentary and archival evidence, until we can be sure that the story is a sound one and its message reliable.

Lisa Jardine

We can be captivated by stories to the point that we prefer the elegant nature of the tale to truth itself

Ever since I published a biography of Sir Christopher Wren, the remarkable architect responsible for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666, I have learned to anticipate a particular sort of contribution from some member of my audience whenever I have introduced Wren's name in a lecture.

The questioner will venture something like this: That was fascinating, but why did I not include the wonderful story of the pillars in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford - the building Wren designed to house the graduation ceremonies of the university just after the Restoration? It, surely, more than anything I had mentioned, captured the very essence of his virtuosity as an architect.

'Delightful story'

Confronted with Wren's ambitious plan to cover the grand interior space with a daring, unsupported ceiling, spanning 70 feet (so my interlocutor will continue), both Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury - the patron funding the building - and the Oxford authorities demurred. Surely such a ceiling was unsafe and would be bound to collapse?

Interior of Wren's theatre
Look, no seemingly-structural pillars

Under protest (he goes on), Wren agreed to add a run of columns, ostensibly to provide additional support. Years later, however, during renovation, it was discovered that he had left an air-gap of several inches between the tops of the columns and the ceiling. The columns did not support the ceiling at all, thereby proving to posterity that Wren's own original, interlocking-beam roof-construction had been sound, and pillars were entirely unnecessary.

"That's a delightful story," I respond, "and one I have indeed heard before. But what do you make of the fact that there are no columns of any kind - whether true or feigned - inside the Sheldonian Theatre?"

Nobody ever asked Wren to provide additional support for the Sheldonian ceiling. A team of experts was appointed to inspect it, in 1700 and again in 1720, because it appeared to be beginning to sag.

That, however, turned out to be because the university had been overloading the ceiling from above, by storing books in the roof space. Once the great weight of books had been removed, there was no further movement.

We still have the inspection team's second, 1720, report: "We do hereby certify, that we did survey, and strictly examine the whole Fabrick of the Theatre, and do find that all the same is in perfect Repair and good Order.

"We do further certify, That the Whole Fabrick of the said Theatre is, in our Opinion, like to remain and continue in such good Repair and Condition, for one hundred or two hundred Years yet to come."

They were absolutely right.

Fact checking

The story of the Sheldonian ceiling is so wonderfully evocative that it positively invites retelling. Eventually, simple repetition convinces us that the tale must be underpinned by concrete evidence, and its trustworthiness becomes established, in defiance of the evidence. It seems almost a pity that a responsible historian has to point out to the - often indignant - person who has told it, that it has no basis in fact.

In Kuwait
Charles Wheeler reporting in Kuwait

Beguiling stories of this kind ought not, however, to blind us to more serious consequences of taking any story of this kind on trust.

It is troublingly easy to sentimentalise our tendency to be captivated by stories to the point that we prefer the elegant nature of the tale to truth itself.

Nowadays, a plausible story - what journalists literally call "a good story" - can gather momentum with staggering speed. If it is loosely based on known events and has an element of truth about it, the public swallows it, and fellow-journalists then amplify it and embellish it. Such stories can run and run, long after they have been discredited as factually incorrect.

A responsible journalist has to exercise constant vigilance against being seduced by a story-line - by checking that the facts upon which the "good story" is based have been verified, sources examined and quotes meticulously based on a written record.

As a result, it turns out that the very best and most conscientious of them are hard to persuade that a story is true until they have run it through all those careful checks to their own satisfaction.

The veteran broadcast journalist Charles Wheeler, who died last week at the age of 85, was famous for his scrupulous reporting. Frequently putting stories together under difficult circumstances, in sensitive war-zones, he was never prepared to base them upon anything but firm evidence.

His searing story for Newsnight of Saddam Hussein's brutal quashing of the Kurdish uprising at the end of the first Gulf War is credited with having persuaded the Americans to set up the safe havens in Iraqi Kurdistan, which still operate today.

'Wedding present'

In 1952, Wheeler was the Berlin correspondent of the BBC's German language service, transmitting throughout occupied Germany. He worked for its nightly current affairs programme, aimed at listeners in the Soviet occupation zone.

Image courtesy of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe
The tiny 16th Century portrait (Image courtesy of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe)

One of his contributors to a feature entitled "Unsigned letters" came regularly from East Germany into the British sector of Berlin at some personal risk to take part in the programme.

One evening he dropped in to see Wheeler, expressing a desire to repay him for his many kindnesses. "I've brought you a wedding present," he said, pulling a brown paper envelope from his jacket pocket.

"But I'm not getting married," responded Wheeler.

"Sooner or later you're bound to. Just open it." He insisted that Wheeler accept his gift: "Don't ask me to take the picture back. I've been through two checkpoints to get to West Berlin and if I'm searched on my way back home..." he added theatrically.

Inside the envelope was a painting on wood, a little larger than a postcard, of a woman in an elaborate high-collared dress, wearing a net of pearls in her hair and matching pearl necklace.

Wheeler's colleague was extremely vague as to the painting's origins. He did hint darkly that he knew it to be extremely valuable. As to how he came by it - all he would say was that he had been given the portrait by a Red Army soldier in exchange for two sacks of potatoes to make vodka.

Charles Wheeler shrugged off the unverifiable story, and decided that the farmer was exaggerating the mystery surrounding the painting to impress him. No matter - he loved the little picture for itself. For more than fifty years, he carried it with him on his travels, propping it up on his desk wherever he was based. He put the story of where it had come from or how out of his mind.

Reporter of integrity

Then, in 2006 he embarked on a programme about the fate of works of art stolen during World War II, and showed his little portrait to the Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe.

Within weeks she had identified Wheeler's painting as a 16th Century original - a portrait of Eleanora of Toledo, the Spanish-born consort of the First Duke of Florence, Cosimo de' Medici, by an important court painter. It had disappeared from Berlin's Kaiser Friedrich Museum in 1944.

Charles Wheeler
I'm rather pleased about it all. Instead of sitting on my bookshelf all these years, it's going to be exhibited properly
Charles Wheeler in 2006

On 1 June 2006, in a small, discreet ceremony, Wheeler returned the painting to the museum in Berlin. It was, he said with satisfaction, a "happy ending" to the story.

Charles Wheeler was, as we have heard from the many tributes over the past week, a reporter of integrity, a foreign correspondent in tireless pursuit of the truth.

He was master of the events-based story, used to convey an important message to his readers or listeners. But he required any eye-witness story to be backed up with plenty of rock-hard evidence.

It gives me a very particular pleasure, as an admirer of Charles Wheeler's memorable reporting over many decades, to remember that on this occasion, a story he had doubted and discarded as too far-fetched to be believed, turned out on further investigation - half a century later - to have been "a good story" after all.

Below is a selection of your comments.

The reason why everyone remembers the pillars story happening is because it did happen - but to the Guildhall in Windsor, not the Sheldonian. Not only does the Guildhall still have the pillars, but you can clearly see the gaps. Another journalistic stand-by - no story is a complete lie, somewhere there is always a tiny grain of truth.
Nona, London

I do hereby certify that the whole fabric of the story hath a basis in truth. He that Googleth Guildhall Windsor shall find that he believeth not in vain and shall derive much comfort to his soul from a simple error in geography. The great uneducated out here would have appreciated the 10 seconds necessary to say how the legend originated. How about the whole truth not just half of it?
David Marsh, Ealing, London

Lisa Jardine writes:
"A number of listeners point out that the story of the Sheldonian Theatre is also told of Windsor Guildhall - more properly Windsor Town Hall - perhaps because this story is on its Wikipedia site. Here there are indeed four decorative columns supporting the upper meeting chamber, which are not there to provide structural support. They do, however, complete the design, as per many comparable town halls with market space beneath.

"But Windsor Town Hall was built to a design by Sir Thomas Fitz, and the foundations laid under his direction in 1687. When Fitz died shortly before work was finished, Wren in his capacity as Royal Surveyor oversaw its completion (1689). Thus this is not strictly a Wren building at all.

"As for the story that the four non-supporting columns were put there after city dignitaries had expressed concern that the floor/ceiling might collapse, there is no evidence of any kind for this, and all the websites I could find which cite the story properly credit it as hearsay or apocryphal. Even the Wikipedia entry begins "The story is widely told that..."

"I do promise you that the story, though a lovely one, really cannot be substantiated as fact for any of Wren's many wonderful buildings. But the case of Windsor Town Hall is a good example of the way in which a plausible story, often repeated, comes to be regarded by many of us as truth, and cherished as such."

There's an Italian saying which elegantly captures this principle in seven words: "Se non e vero, e ben trovato". Loosely: "It's so well-contrived that it deserves to be true, even if it isn't."
Robin Wilton, Westbury, UK

What worries me is not only the fact that we like to latch onto a "good" story, but how enthusiastically we embrace stories that shore up our prejudices against particular groups of people or make us victims. The council has banned local St George's day parades (I checked- they hadn't); a woman was forced to take a Union flag out of her window (I checked - she'd had a flag in the window alongside a homemade poster saying nasty things about non-white people); Gloucester police gave a roof-sitting, tile-throwing criminal pizza because they had to respect his human rights (I checked - they'd done it to distract him while officers crept up to tackle him. In each case, it took me under five minutes to contact the relevant people and get actual information. So it's not even just that people believe - they WANT to believe so hard that they'll spend lots of energy ranting about the injustice to their friends, but actively refuse to spend mere minutes to check the facts.
Kaz, Macclesfield, UK

As a journalist, I infer from Wheeler's story the wisdom in journos having incredulity in mind and a bit of credulity in the back of the mind.
Carlton Cofie, MA, Watford, UK

We should recall that during Charles Wheeler's time on Newsnight some bright spark had the idea of sending him to Hamburg, where he was brought up, to cover the Hitler Diaries story. As a fluent German speaker, he gave an instant translation of the latest instalment, hot off the Der Spiegel presses. Of course, this attempt to scoop the rest of the English-speaking media relied on speed, with no chance to double-check the authenticity of what the German news magazine had published.
Nick Powell, Cardiff, Wales

It seems like if there's anyone of integrity who should have benefited from enjoying the painting privately for 50 years, it should have been Charles Wheeler.
Dan Frydman, Edinburgh, Scotland

This reads like an artificial story designed to head off a suggestion that Charles Wheeler colluded in art theft, not least because of all the waffle about integrity, scrupulousness, and checking the facts, before allowing a story to run, and is a case of the BBC looking after its own, possibly in the event of forthcoming news on the issue of art theft. Is there a story about to break about art theft, in Iraq, or West Africa, or maybe another try at the Elgin Marbles, or an upcoming debate in the Lords? "Never take a story at face value. That has to be the watchword, for those of us whose job it is to paint a vivid picture of past events." Arrogant, patronising, self regarding, "us" the BBC, and "you" the little people, who have to listen to the twaddle we talk, about ourselves, in public, at your expense.
Danny Israel, London

I work as a tourist guide and am well aware of the dangers in my profession of being seduced by a good story even if it is not strictly accurate. (You are unlikely to have anyone in your group check its veracity.) However, there is often a kernel of truth in the legend. Check out the columns beneath the canpoy at the front of Windsor Town Hall and see for yourself.
Edwin Lerner, London, UK

I wonder if the Sheldonian myth is linked to the similar - but true - story about Brunel and the Maidenhead Bridge? When he built it, it was the lowest, widest brick arch in the world (in fact, I think it still is) and he was prevailed upon by his fellow Great Western Railway directors to leave the scaffolding in place to support it. The next winter the scaffolding washed away in a Thames flood, the bridge survived - and Brunel revealed that he had had the scaffolding dropped by a few inches when the bridge was finished: there had never been any extra support.
Ian Johnston, Edinburgh, UK

Many years ago a reporter of a local paper had been casually chatting with my mother on town council matters. She must have mentioned my working in Africa, for the paper then published a very inaccurate, and possibly insulting to the people with whom I was working, sensationalist article. I wrote to complain and was told by the editor that it must be right because his reporter had written it. Since then I have had little belief in what is written. Hence it is good to know that some get it right. Or is the reporter writing this merely making a "good" story?
Jane, Essex

Bill Bryson's Down Under reports a similar story about Sydney Harbour Bridge. Originally designed with no towers, the powers that be deemed it to appear unstable. The engineer then added two ostensibly solid granite towers for "additional support". The plans were duly approved despite the solid granite towers serving no structural purpose whatsoever and being hollow and filled with rubble and building debris.
Guy, Esher, Surrey


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