The Independent, 10 April 1999
War in the Balkans – Nato spokesman accused of exaggeration by French
By Katherine Butler in Brussels
SPONTANEOUS LAUGHTER rippled through the room as journalists listened to Nato’s daily press briefing. They had just heard Jamie Shea, the Nato spokesman, say that the bombing of Yugoslavia brought nothing but relief to Kosovo’s oppressed Albanians. One woman, he told them, on hearing Nato jet engines overhead, said she thought it was “the sound of angels”.
Mr Shea stopped in his tracks at the titters. “Yes, that’s right,” he said “The sound of angels.” Reading everyone’s mind, Shea added: “I could never have put it so eloquently.”
This was false modesty. Mr Shea’s dailybriefings are a catalogue of soundbites and powerful quotes. The Serbian leader is Pol Pot or Al Capone. Fleeing refugees stripped of their identity documents are going through “an Orwellian nightmare” or “trading in their property rights for a train ticket to oblivion”.
Live television broadcasts of his news conferences have turned 45-year-old Mr Shea into a household name. In fact Mr Shea is a reluctant star and his new role as Nato’s frontman, constantly in the spotlight, churning out selective information and overblown rhetoric, is something those close to him believe he is uneasy with.
Mr Shea is no newcomer to Nato. For 18 years he has been with the alliance, the last six as spokesman. He is a favourite with the Brussels-based press. “He is the consummate journalists’ friend,” says one. “He yanked Nato into the 20th century and made it a more open place.” It is hard to find a journalist with a complaint.
Affable and unassuming, his impeccable courtesy and air of local-boy-made-good contrasts with the style of other British spin doctors, such as Alastair Campbell, or Gordon Brown’s former mouthpiece, Charlie Whelan.
Someone who first met him when Mr Shea was a Nato minute-taker stresses how he has remained a shy and modest man: “He is not a performer. He is uncomfortable when he has to accompany [the Nato secretary-general, Javier] Solana to London and they stay at Claridges. He’d rather go to the pub.”
But this self-effacing side belies the authority he commands within the alliance. Mr Shea is in his own right a heavyweight academic who earned a doctorate from Oxford after a First in History and French from Sussex University.
His accent has attracted much comment, particularly in the class-obsessed British press, the subtext being: how did someone who sounds like Frank Butcher of EastEnders get to be the voice of the transatlantic military alliance?
Mr Shea is now being blamed for a number of Nato “exaggerations”. Two French newspapers this week accused him of “propagating rumours”. Now he has been embarrassed by Nato’s admission that it bombed residential districts in the Kosovo capital, Pristina.
Those who know him say he is sincere in his feelings, both for the plight of the Kosovo Albanians and his belief in the “fundamental gospel” of Nato. As the messenger for Nato’s actions and policies he is now being shot for Nato’s mistakes.
But Mr Shea is more than a messenger. He has allowed himself, however reluctantly, to become the public face of the allied campaign. And, having started, he must go on justifying it, whatever happens.