Michael Shea (1938-2009)
We explore the life of the Scottish diplomat and author, whose involvement in a 1986 royal press crisis recently gripped viewers of 'The Crown'.
Early years and Edinburgh
Michael Sinclair MacAuslan Shea was born in 1938 in Carluke, Lanarkshire. He attended Lenzie Academy followed by Gordonstoun—the same boarding school that Prince Philip, and later, Prince Charles, attended. He then enrolled at the University of Edinburgh where he studied Economics, staying on to complete his doctorate there.
Diplomat and novelist
Shea joined the Foreign Office in 1963 and embarked on a diplomatic career that took him to New York, Romania, and West Germany. It was while in the latter that be began a side-career as a novelist, writing several political thrillers under the pseudonym of Michael Sinclair. He eventually published 14 novels, as well as five non-fiction books.
But it was through his diplomatic work that Shea became involved in arranging the Queen's bicentennial visit to New York in 1976. It proved to be career-changing, and some might say eventually life-altering - he so impressed royal courtiers that he soon joined royal service in 1978.
At the palace
Shea became the Queen's press secretary and found himself immediately having to deal with major PR incidents and issues, including the 1979 exposure of Sir Anthony Blunt —the Royal Family's art curator— as a former Soviet spy. He also had to manage the fallout from Michael Fagan's early morning break-in to the Queen's bedroom in 1982 – an incident that has also lent itself to a whole episode of 'The Crown'.
Shea also accompanied the Queen on tours to 65 countries and in doing so established a good working rapport with both the Royal Family and the press – essential in encouraging fair and positive coverage from the latter.
Shea oversaw media liaison during the engagement and wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, too – a time of unprecedented attention surrounding the couple, and, perhaps aware that his goodwill with the press could be tested, issued a famously forceful statement to the press when they followed the Queen on her annual holiday to Sandringham:
''The Queen has become increasingly angry about this, to put it bluntly—this trip has been far worse than any other. Now it seems that some Fleet Street editors think the Queen is fair game, even when she has no official engagements. No member of the royal family can move out of Sandringham without a posse of pressmen surrounding them. They are hanging about the stables, photographing anything that moves.''
Shea was to leave royal service under a cloud, however, when the events depicted in 'The Crown' began to unfold in 1986.
The Sunday Times published an article alleging that the social policies pursued by Margaret Thatcher’s government were causing the Queen "dismay;" that the Queen disapproved of Thatcher's handling of the coal miners' strike; and that Thatcher's negative attitude to the Commonwealth of Nations caused the Queen "displeasure".
Shea was assumed to be the source of the comments, which were very damaging to the monarchy and the expectation that it should avoid any public interference in politics.
Confirmation from the Queen’s Private Secretary that it was indeed Shea who had spoken to the newspaper, and an admission from Shea himself that he had done so (albeit insisting that he had been misrepresented in the article) meant that Shea’s position was untenable and he left royal service in 1987.
After the palace
Shea then worked for six years at Hanson PLC as director of public relations and continued to write novels. In 2003, he published a memoir, 'A View from the Sidelines', about his time in the palace.
Shea was also an active member of the arts scene in Edinburgh, being chairman of the Royal Lyceum Theatre for a time, directing the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and sitting on the University of Edinburgh Court.
He was given the honour of the Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, and died in 2009 at age 71.