Britain's royal family protects its air of mystery and reserve

The footman who came to the door of Buckingham Palace wore a black tailcoat and a waistcoat of splendid scarlet. Outside in the raw winter air tourists doggedly watched the changing of the guard, even though guards, infantry units, and bandsmen were in somber blue and brown overcoats instead of summertime reds and golds.

Inside, beyond a gleaming reception room, at the end of a corridor glowing with subdued taste, a tall, graying, distinguished-looking man greeted me with an offhand remark: ''It's like working in a museum here.''

This urbane figure, who resembles the British actor Anthony Hopkins, is Michael Shea, press secretary to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He oversees relations between the world's most popular monarchy and the world's press.

Mostly the relations, and the stories, are happy - welcome relief from economic gloom and global trouble spots. Occasionally, when the royal family want some privacy from their year-round, fishbowl lives, the atmosphere grows strained.

It is a fascinating situation for an outsider to watch. The monarchy needs - and undoubtedly has - the approval and the affection of its people. Yet it requires an element of mystery and reserve as well: As the 19th-century constitutional authority Walter Bagehot wrote, ''We must not let in daylight upon magic.''

For its part, the Fleet Street press, beset by soaring costs, outdated technology, and falling circulations, needs royal stories and pictures almost every day. The papers compete fiercely and often acrimoniously to get them.

''The problem,'' Mr. Shea remarks, ''is not between us and them. It is between them and them.''

The popularity, youth, and freshness of the Princess of Wales make a candid picture even more valuable - not just for Fleet Street, but also for the other European press. Coverage of the British royal family in West German and Italian publications is even more extensive than here in Britain.

Recently, Mr. Shea has been at the center of headlines in three parts of the world.

In Britain he relayed two appeals from the royal family for less intrusive press coverage over the holiday season. On the Continent he asked the world's press to leave Prince Charles and the Princess alone, except for a single photo call, as they skied in Liechtenstein.

In the Middle East Shea was among palace officials who paid a visit to Amman, Jordan, revealed only after the event, to check on security arrangements for the Queen's coming visit there.

Yet as Shea and some of Fleet Street itself see it, there is less to it all than meets the eye.

''Well, there are very few nasty stories in the British press,'' Mr. Shea said.

''The criticism of Princess Anne and Princess Margaret has gone.

''Princess Anne won a good press when she went to Africa for the Save the Children Fund, when she went to Beirut, and when she cracked jokes with Michael Parkinson on television. . . .

''Prince Andrew gets a fantastic mail, supportive. . . .

''There is no war between Fleet Street and the palace. There are disagreements over degrees of access on private occasions. . . . Relations with the press are getting better. . . .''

At the same time, acres of newsprint in Britain and on the Continent are devoted to totally inaccurate, fabricated stories.

According to a study made by Jean Marcilly, former editor in chief of France-Dimanche, between 1958 and 1972 the French popular press reported 63 times that the Queen had abdicated. She had been on the point of breaking up with Prince Philip 73 times. She had been ''fed up'' 112 times, on the verge of a nervous breakdown 32 times, had 43 unhappy nights and 27 nightmares, and her life had been threatened 29 times.

The top score was the number of times she had expelled Lord Snowdon from court: 151. (In fact, Shea says, the former Anthony Armstrong-Jones is ''in and out of the palace all the time, and greatly liked.'')

The authors of the inaccuracies don't bother to check with the palace, he says. They just write.

Shea sits behind a broad desk topped in scarlet. A gilt-framed mirror almost covers one wall. There is an antique stand-up writing desk before a window. The only reminders of the clamor beyond the walls are a single television set and a video recorder.

The press secretary looks every inch what he was for two decades: a Foreign Office diplomat. He served in Bonn, in Bucharest, Romania, and as deputy director general of the British Information Services in New York.

In 1978 he was asked to follow Ronald Allison at the palace for five years. The Queen is said to like him immensely, and he has just left the diplomatic service to join the royal household on a permanent basis.

Shea, educated at Gordonstoun in Scotland (the school Prince Charles attended), is married to a Norwegian and has two daughters. They live in a five-bedroom, three-bathroom ''grace and favor'' home in Pimlico owned by the Queen.

Shea writes books he describes as ''political thrillers.'' He has written seven books, mostly under the pseudonym of Michael Sinclair. One tells of a multinational company trying to buy up Scotland. Another is a tour of British offshore islands: He identifies some 600.

How is he regarded by the Fleet Street press corps?

''Well, Shea is a diplomat, and his training helps him,'' says James Whittaker, royal reporter for the mass-circulation Daily Mirror since 1968.

In an interview, Mr. Whittaker paid the press secretary tribute: ''Of all the press people I have encountered at the palace in 15 years, he is the most helpful. He gives more guidance than anyone else. . . .''

He added: ''He can also try to put you down as much as any of his predecessors. . . . But when possible he does give good guidance. . . .

''Anybody in his position would do more if he could, but the staff is supervised by the Queen's private secretary, Sir Philip Moore, who has very, very great influence. He feels he doesn't have to pander to the press at all. . . .''

Whittaker agrees there is no war between Fleet Street and the palace. ''There are differences as to what makes news,'' he adds.

''Whatever the royal family does makes news. I don't think it ever has the right to say, 'You can't go to Switzerland, it's our vacation.' You can't allow the palace to run the press. . . .

''At the same time, once we have our pictures and stories and so on, I think we can withdraw instead of hanging around, which does upset the royal family. . . .''

''The British press did just that in Liechtenstein. . . .''

Not all Shea's duties involve relations with the press. Other controversies come up from time to time.

For instance, he has just been denying claims by Enoch Powell, Official Unionist member of Parliament for South Down, that the Queen was being poorly advised by her ministers. Mr. Powell has touched off a controversy by claiming the Queen's speeches lately ''suggest'' that she is more concerned with the interests of Commonwealth countries than the British people.

This is taken to refer to the Queen's Christmas message. In it she spoke of the need, as she sees it, for more cooperation within the Commonwealth to close what she called the gap between rich and poor members. The Queen specifically praised aid to India and Indian self-help.

For 30 years Mr. Powell has insisted the Queen is primarily monarch of the British people. In a speech in Leicester Jan. 20, he said the monarch should have a ''unique and exclusive sympathy'' with Britons, but now appears to have more concern for ''the susceptibilities and prejudices of a vociferous minority of newcomers. . . .''

Shea replies that the Christmas speech is a personal message from the Queen to Commonwealth countries. It is, he says, written without the advice of ministers.

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