Steele was educated at King's College, Cambridge (BA) and Yale University (MA). He took part as a volunteer in the Mississippi Freedom Summer (1964) helping to register black Americans to vote, and was on the second abortive march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He joined the Guardian as a reporter on return to the UK in September 1965. He has reported on Afghanistan, Russia, Iraq, and scores of other countries. He was Washington Bureau Chief for the Guardian from 1975 to 1979, Moscow Bureau Chief from 1988 to 1994, Foreign News Editor between 1979 and 1982 and Chief Foreign Correspondent for The Guardian between 1982 and 1988 during which he reported on civil war in El Salvador and Nicaragua as well as the US invasion of Grenada in 1983. On return to London in 1994 after six years in Moscow, he covered the crisis in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 and the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. As Senior Foreign Correspondent he covered numerous stories in the Middle East after 2001. He covered the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was regularly on assignment in Baghdad for the next three years. This resulted in January 2008 in his book Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq which was published by I.B. Tauris in the UK and Counterpoint in the US. He covered the crisis in Syria after 2011, making numerous trips to Damascus. He reported on the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon in July/August 2006.
He has reported frequently from Afghanistan, starting with his first visit to Kabul in 1981 during the Soviet occupation. He covered the Taliban take-over of the Afghan capital in 1996 as well as their collapse in 2001. His book, Ghosts of Afghanistan: the Haunted Battleground analyses thirty years of Afghan history (Portobello Books, London 2011 and Counterpoint, San Francisco 2011). In between foreign assignments he worked as a columnist for the Guardian on international affairs. He was a member of the Guardian team which analysed the Wikileaks documents on Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the cache of State Department cables.
In 2006, Steele won a Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism Special Award in honor of his career contributions. He was named International Reporter of the Year in the British Press Awards in 1981 and again in 1991. He won the London Press Club's Scoop of the Year Award in 1991 for being the only English-language reporter to reach the villa in the Crimea where Mikhail Gorbachev was held captive and interview the Soviet president during the brief coup in August that year. In 1998 he won Amnesty International's foreign reporting award for his coverage of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. In 1998 he also won the James Cameron award.
Steele is a frequent broadcaster on the BBC and an occasional contributor to the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. Since March 2014 he has worked as Chief Reporter of the website Middle East Eye.
- The South African Connection: Western Investment in Apartheid (with Ruth First and Christabel Gurney) 1972
- Socialism with a German Face 1977
- Superpowers in Collision: The New Cold War (with Noam Chomsky and John Gittings) 1983
- Andropov in Power (with Eric Abraham) 1983
- Soviet Power: The Kremlin's Foreign Policy from Brezhnev to Andropov 1983
- Eternal Russia; Yeltsin, Gorbachev and the Mirage of Democracy 1994
- Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq, 2008.
- Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground, 2011.
Steele has a wife, Ruth. The couple live in London, and have two children, and four grandchildren.