In The Crown, Michael Shea is fired for something the queen told him to do, which is loosely based on a real-life press leak that happened in 1986.
The Crown season 4, episode 8, “48:1,” introduces Michael Shea, who played an important role in the public life of the royal family, particularly Queen Elizabeth II. Michael Shea’s official job title between 1978 and 1987 was Press Secretary to the Sovereign. In the eleven-year time period, Michael Shea managed public perception of the royal family through many scandals and major events including Prince Charles’ early relationship with Lady Diana Spencer, Michael Fagan’s break-in of the palace where he entered the queen’s bedroom, and the startling public revelation that the queen’s personal art curator, Anthony Blunt – who appeared in The Crown season 3, episode 1, “Olding” – was a Soviet spy.
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In The Crown, Michael Shea is depicted as a conservative man. He encourages the queen to make a preemptive statement in support of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, squashing any gossip or rumors about the queen’s personal disagreement with Thatcher. But the queen tells Michael Shea – along with her private secretary, Martin Charteris – that perhaps she wouldn’t mind if her opinions on Thatcher somehow became public. Margaret Thatcher (played by Gillian Anderson) refused to vote in favor of sanctions against South Africa over the establishment of apartheid, which the queen firmly opposes, and the queen believes that Thatcher has abandoned the people of the United Kingdom along with the Commonwealth of Nations. Elizabeth feels, at that point, that there is a moral imperative to publically disagree with Thatcher. The queen tells Shea that she wants him to tip off a reporter regarding her opinions – quietly.
Michael Shea accepts the queen’s instruction to leak her political opinions to a reporter at the Sunday Times but makes his disapproval of the choice known to Martin Charteris. That doesn’t seem to do him any good, though, because the leak is eventually traced back to him and the queen cannot defend him. It’s technically illegal for the British monarch to express any partisan views and legitimizing the leak regarding the queen’s opinion of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher could have caused the whole institution of the monarchy to implode. In the show, Michael Shea took the fall for the scandal and was fired on the spot for doing what the queen told him to do.
In real life, what happened to Michael Shea is a little less clear. In 1986, there was indeed a leak to the Sunday Times that reported the queen’s “dismay” with some of Margaret Thatcher’s policies [via Telegraph]. The queen’s private secretary at the time – who was William Heseltine and not Martin Charteris – accused Shea of being the mole, though he added that Shea’s comments were misrepresented. Shea conceded that he had spoken with the Sunday Times but denied leaking any information regarding the queen’s personal views. Rather than being immediately dismissed from his role as royal press secretary, he voluntarily left the position the following year – though some speculated that it was not truly voluntary.
Regardless, Shea will likely not return for The Crown season 5. As noted at the end of The Crown, season 4, episode 8, “48:1” that Shea went on to write many books, including political thrillers. A few of Shea’s books were published under the pseudonym Michael Sinclair, but most of his works were published under his own name. However, there is an American author of the same name who might be mistaken for the Scottish author and diplomat. The late Michael Shea died in 2009 at the age of 71. Though Shea was never knighted – a traditional award for his level of service – the queen was reportedly saddened to hear of his passing.
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