Why Channel 4 News' deputy editor Martin Fewell moved into PR

The Met Police's director of media and comms is on the front line of communicating the force's new operating model, finds Kate Magee.

Martin Fewell: An arresting force
Martin Fewell: An arresting force

Martin Fewell is striding purposefully through the surprisingly archaic corridors of New Scotland Yard in pursuit of a good backdrop for his PRWeek photograph. The building may be frozen in the 1960s, and up for sale, but the Metropolitan Police is undergoing a major shake-up to its policing model amid swingeing budget cuts.

As comms chief, it will be Fewell's responsibility to oversee the communication of these changes, both internally and externally.

In September, the former deputy editor of Channel 4 News became the latest in a string of high-profile journalists to swell the ranks of the comms industry - but not for him the well-paid 'strategy' or 'big-name client pleaser' role at an agency.

During his first week in the job, the Hillsborough Independent Panel's report severely criticised the South Yorkshire police's behaviour during the disaster.

In week two, Plebgate kicked off. And within the first couple of months, the Jimmy Savile scandal had emerged.

Add this to the challenge to save about 20 per cent of the force's budget (£500m) in three years, which will see the comms department cut by about one third (50 people), and an organisation arguably destabilised by rapid turnover at the top - three commissioners in three years prior to the current head Bernard Hogan-Howe - and it is clear that Fewell's move was not motivated by a desire for a quieter life.

'I joined the business on the eve of the biggest change it has been through in many decades,' he says. 'There's been a negative narrative in the media about the police. But to really turn this around, it is not just about releasing good news stories about the courage, bravery and quality of officers. Where there is justified criticism, you have to respond to it and change.'

The change programme will see the sale of many police stations within the Met's 32 boroughs, with services to be delivered by phone, online or at new 'public access points', which may include supermarkets or libraries.

As part of the plan, the comms department will undergo a restructure, with staff stripped out from individual units and centralised under Fewell's leadership. A major staff engagement programme has also been running. 'The internal comms challenge has been at least as important as the issues that the external world would be more familiar with,' he says.

One such issue is the Leveson Inquiry's criticism that the police were too cosy with journalists. Indeed, Fewell's predecessor Dick Fedorcio resigned after his decision to hire the News of the World's former executive editor Neil Wallis as a comms adviser was called into question. (Fedorcio was later cleared by the IPCC.)

But while Fewell believes there are times when PR professionals should be present during journalist discussions - around Operation Yewtree for example - he argues: 'Officers from time to time will need to speak to a journalist without a PR person being there. Communication is fundamental to policing - we need to engage with the public and engaging with the media is part of that process. Our message to our officers is let's build those relationships in an open and professional way.'

Fewell, 49, has a no-nonsense approach and a natural authority. He speaks with a precise, informative and clear manner and in a deep resonant voice typical of broadcasters. He began his career at the BBC in local radio and held various positions including launch editor for BBC News 24 and deputy editor of the BBC Radio 4 bulletins, before spending 14 years at Channel 4 News, ten as deputy editor.

He says his decision to jump over the fence after 25 years was triggered by a desire for a change, and because: 'I no longer wanted to be an observer, but a participant.'

Former colleagues highlight his intelligence, focus and determination as traits that will aid his transition.

Channel 4 News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who worked with him at the BBC and Channel 4 News, says: 'He had a nickname of "two brains" for a while and not without reason. He's a formidable person and will defend his position ruthlessly, but I'm sure what he says is not out of a blind belief or loyalty.

'He will have all the same cynicism and questions he always had as a journalist. He is fiercely loyal to whoever he is working for, so I can imagine he'll be extremely effective as a PR operator.'

Another former colleague says that, despite his intelligence, 'he never left people behind because he is a great explainer and a comprehensive communicator'. She adds: 'People always wanted him in the room to get his judgement when there was a big call to make.'

Although the sheer scale of the organisation is different, Fewell has found a surprising similarity between the people.

'I feel very at home here because police officers and journalists are similar; they are both trained not to believe what they hear,' he says. 'The people I work with have a similar sense of humour and view of the world - they are questioning, challenging, committed, driven by passion and not in it for the money. They are here because they want to be here.

'That means as an organisation you have a tremendous power and if you can harness that power, you can achieve remarkable things.'

You only need one brain to see he is a smart hire.

CV
2012: Director of media and comms, Metropolitan Police
2002: Deputy editor, Channel 4 News
1998: Programme editor, Channel 4 News
1997: Daytime editor, BBC News 24
1993: Deputy editor, World at One; PM; The World This Weekend
1991: Duty editor, World at One
1987: Various roles, BBC local radio

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

Joining the BBC as a reporter.

The first step is always the hardest. My first big story was the Clapham rail crash. My most extraordinary moment was editing Channel 4 News on 9/11. It was definitely one amazing day.

Have you had a notable mentor?

An illustrious collection of news editors - Jim Gray (the former Channel 4 News editor), Kevin Marsh (editor of the BBC College of Journalism) and Roger Mosey (who oversaw the BBC's London 2012 coverage).

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Do what you do best.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Hunger and passion. Lots of people have the intelligence and the experience to take on roles, but what marks out the star from the competent is drive and motivation.

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