Courage under fire

The MoD's director of news is just as at home in a war zone as he is in a news room. Matt Cartmell reports

James Shelley: MoD's director of news
James Shelley: MoD's director of news

The ongoing Lords inquiry into government comms has seen departmental press officers slammed as ‘puny and insignificant’. But there was some praise for the Ministry of Defence (MoD). ITV
political editor Tom Bradby singled out its director of news as ‘very bright’.

‘Very bright’ is an apt description of James Shelley’s handling of news surrounding the MoD’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past five years. He masterminded the media blackout around the mobilisation of Prince Harry in December, which took seven months to set up.

‘He’s the master at finding compromises and reaching an agreement that reflects the interests of the MoD but also means I can look my colleagues in the eye,’ says the BBC’s head of foreign news Jon Williams. Williams was one of 40 journalists who Shelley convinced to keep a lid on Prince Harry’s deployment.

Shelley himself acknowledges the ‘legacy of Harry’, admitting his office has seen an increase in understanding about Afghanistan. ‘Some people would say [the prince’s deployment] is a contributing factor,’ he admits, but he is also keen to stress that was not why the MoD did it: ‘We had a soldier who wanted to deploy.’

Shelley, aged 36, is a good spokesman, not least for himself. Although he speaks in a wide cockney patter, his words are carefully selected to make the least emotional impact, a talent clearly valuable when dealing with the emotive issue of war.

Bell Pottinger Public Affairs chairman Peter Bingle describes Shelley as a ‘fascinating character’. ‘He is now one of the most accomplished comms professionals in the public sector,’ he says. ‘He clearly
understands the political constraints within which he and his team operate.’

Shelley says he has seen the politicisation of defence issues increase massively in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, and says his team is constantly dealing with ‘political cross points’, making issues such as pay just as big news as fatalities.

And inevitably, being director of news at the MoD is often about dealing with ‘a lot of bad news’. Recent announcements have included the first female fatality and the 100th soldier killed in Afghanistan.

‘Everyone acknowledges there are issues,’ admits Shelley cautiously.

Shelley developed his flair for dealing with bad news working for train operator Connex Rail: ‘That was driven by issues management, except it was issues such as punctuality. It prepared me for this
job though.’

A move to the Home Office saw him overseeing a desk dealing with up to 650 press calls a day. The move to the MoD came when he was asked to come over and revamp the procurement desk in 2003. He has now been to Afghanistan six or seven times, while his visits to Iraq are into double figures.

‘I’ve experienced what many others never experience, such as flying low in a helicopter in Baghdad. We took John Humphrys to Iraq and we were in Basra Palace. A rocket landed ten metres away.’

Shelley’s predecessor James Clark, now director of comms and government relations at BearingPoint, says the way Shelley dealt with the Today programme’s coverage in Iraq, and John Humphrys in particular, was ‘outstanding’.

‘It was a high-risk, politically sensitive engagement, and he managed expectations with real panache,’ says Clark.

A key MoD comms tactic is the use of military personnel as spokespeople on the ground, something Shelley calls its ‘best asset in terms of communications’.

Is that because public support for the armed forces is at 77 per cent favourability, whereas the MoD’s is currently 50 per cent? Shelley looks uneasy, but counters that the MoD’s reputation is ‘getting better’.
When pushed, Shelley admits there are still challenges within military comms. Messaging can often be mixed across the Army, Navy, RAF and the vast MoD civil service. And he agrees the appointment of military officers on the ground to comms duties can often be an unwanted career move. This, he says, is something Britain can learn to do better from the Americans.

If anyone is going to ‘learn’ this, it is Shelley’s team. The Sun chief reporter John Kay says the MoD has ‘the best press office in Whitehall’, but praises Shelley’s modus operandi. ‘You will never see his name on a press release,’ he says. ‘He operates in the shadows in a totally professional manner.’

Perhaps the final word on him should go to the BBC’s Williams.

‘James and I will argue the toss and will occasionally tear strips off each other,’ he says, ‘but I always know that he doesn’t take it personally.’

Shelley’s turning points

What was your biggest career break?

I’ve been very fortunate to be promoted within the job. Every advancement is a career break. Connex made me realise this was an industry I wanted to work in.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Developing lasting relationships is crucial to personal development. Be open to other people’s ideas but be sure of your own ideas. You must not be frightened of telling people things they don’t want to hear. Pick your fights carefully; you can’t win them all.

Who has been your greatest mentor?

It would be unfair to pick one person. I’ve been lucky to work with hugely impressive people – some fantastic civil servants, politicians, special advisers and now military officers.

What do you look for in new recruits?

A lot of things can be taught on the job. But you’ve got to have a passion for communication. You’ve got to have judgement, be reliant, have a good sense of humour and have the ability to ease the pressure with a joke.

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