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Without Sam McAlister, it seems fair to say, Pizza Express in Woking would not have become one of Britain’s most famous restaurants. She it was who, as a Newsnight producer, bagged the Prince Andrew interview with Emily Maitlis that duly provides the big finish to her memoir of working on the programme.
Even though we know what happened, McAlister’s eye-witness description of the Royal car-crash retains the power to shock – as, to her authentic journalistic mix of horror, astonishment and delight, each of the Prince’s answers somehow manages to be more damaging than the last. (Early on, McAlister is convinced that his airy dismissal of the alleged Sandringham birthday party for Ghislaine Maxwell as “a straightforward shooting weekend” will be his low point. But not for long.)
What took place before and after the interview proves fairly eye-popping too. For the final negotiations about whether he’d publicly discuss accusations of sex with a 17-year-old girl, Andrew brought with him his daughter, Princess Beatrice. Once the interview was over, a beaming palace equerry exclaimed to McAlister: “Wasn’t he wonderful!” – a verdict with which the man himself, by then in “in fine spirits”, evidently concurred.
The trouble with Scoops, though, is that the Prince Andrew section occupies only the last quarter – and, while the preceding 200 pages do have their moments, taken as a whole they’re rather less riveting.
McAlister begins with the story of her early life, which follows the approved pattern of an outsider “with no connections” cracking a world of privilege. Except that on closer inspection, this doesn’t entirely hold up. Within the framework of one woman’s plucky rise against the odds, McAlister passingly mentions her family’s holidays in Monte Carlo and being a champion debater at Edinburgh University. When she quits her first career as a barrister, she turns to a friend who “as luck would have it” works for Radio 4, and gets her an entry into the BBC.
Nor does she seem overly afflicted by an outsider’s lack of self-confidence. Before long, she tells us, she’d established a reputation on Newsnight as an unsurpassed booker of guests, persuading interviewees to appear in a way that’s “used in BBC training… to this day”. And although none of her anecdotes contain the actual words “Naturally, I had the last laugh”, some do come pretty close.
But as the title suggests, the bulk of Scoops comprises an anthology of her greatest hits – or, as she characteristically refers to them, “examples of my many achievements”. So it is that each chapter focuses on a different interview, from her initial pursuit to the highlights of what was said. Granted, none of these reach Prince-Andrew heights, and one or two are inadvertent proof of how quickly news stories can fade from the public memory. Some, however, do pack a punch. Brigitte Höss, daughter of the commandant of Auschwitz, sticks firmly to the belief that her old dad was “the nicest man in the world”. Porn actress Stormy Daniels describes Donald Trump’s penis in meticulous detail, and impresses the author by insisting that her encounter with him was “definitely not a ‘MeToo’ moment”. “It was rare to hear someone rejecting the opportunity to be a ‘victim’,” McAlister writes with bracing approval.
She’s also bracing about the BBC, which she has since left. As a Jeremy Paxman fan, she’s dismayed when the great man is eased aside by Newsnight Editor Ian Katz in favour of the gentler interview stylings of Evan Davis and a more celebrity-based approach. (When Katz himself leaves, she admits to shedding tears – but only of relief.) As an old-school believer in BBC impartiality, she’s aghast when, the morning after the Brexit vote, she finds a Remainer colleague weeping in the newsroom. “I was embarrassed for her,” McAlister says. “Had I been the Editor, I would have asked her to gather herself and come back when she could show a professional demeanour.” Worse, “the whole building felt like it was in mourning”.
By the end of Scoops, there seems little doubt that McAlister’s decision to take voluntary redundancy – partly because of the decline in impartiality – was a loss to the BBC. Nonetheless, her over-detailed and sometimes uncomfortably boastful account as to why remains a distinctly patchy read.
Scoops: Behind the Scenes of the BBC’s Most Shocking Interviews is published by Oneworld at £16.99. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books