Steely Emily Maitlis delivers clinical performance in Prince Andrew interview: Newsnight review

Ed Power
Emily Maitlis interviewing Prince Andrew in Buckingham Palace - PA

“Surreal” was one way to describe this special Saturday edition of Newsnight (BBC Two). Against the costume drama splendour of Buckingham Palace, Prince Andrew sat down with Emily Maitlis to discuss his relationship with sexual trafficker and paedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

Again and again, you had to pinch yourself to confirm that, yes, you were actually watching a senior member of the royal family addressing these matters on national television. Simply on the level of something being beamed into your living room at weekend prime time, it was deeply bizarre. 

He denied having known of Epstein’s predatory activities during their friendship and also rejected the accusation of Epstein’s victim Virginia Roberts, that she had sex with Andrew, having been coerced into doing so. Much of what he said had been flagged in advance with the BBC releasing segments of the interview, conducted on Thursday, ahead of the broadcast. But reading about it, or even watching brief clips, was one thing. To see the Duke of York talk about Epstein and the notorious photograph in which he appears to have his arm around Roberts was something else. 

Emily Maitlis interviewing Prince Andrew in Buckingham Palace Credit: Mark Harrington/BBC/PA Wire

Maitlis surmised it perfectly at the end of the hour-long broadcast: “There has never been an interview like this before.” But are we any wiser regarding the Prince’s interactions with Epstein, who was found hung in his cell in August while awaiting trial for sex trafficking offences? Well, we know that Andrew has issues with a photograph of him and Roberts allegedly taken in the London home of Epstein’s girlfriend on March 10 2001. He didn’t go so far as to claim out loud that the image was doctored. But he said he had no recollection of ever meeting her. 

“It’s definitely me…that’s a picture of me,” he said, adding. “I don’t believe it’s a picture of me in London because when I would go out..when I out in London I wear a suit and tie.” He later said that he didn’t “believe the photograph was taken in the way that has been suggested”. 

The Prince framed his decision to speak to Newsnight as a “mental health” issue. “It’s been nagging at my mind for a great many years. I know that I made the wrong judgement and I made the wrong decision but I made the wrong decision and the wrong judgement I believe fundamentally for the right reasons.”

He was referring to his decision to stay at Epstein’s New York mansion in December 2010 after Epstein had served a sentence for procuring for prosecution a girl under 18. He had gone to Epstein, he said, to break off the friendship. 

“The problem was the fact that once he had been convicted I stayed with him,” said Prince Andrew. “That’s the bit I kick myself for on a daily basis because it was not something that was becoming of a member of the Royal Family and we try and uphold the highest standards and practices and I let the side down, simple as that.”  

He blamed his strict moral code. “At the time I felt it was the honourable and right thing to do, and I admit fully that my judgment was probably coloured by my tendency to be too honourable, but that’s just the way it is,” he said.

There were moments when the exchange threatened to spiral into a grisly tragic humour. He couldn’t have slept with Roberts in London on the alleged date he said, because he had taken his daughter, Princess Beatrice, to a Pizza Express that afternoon. 

“Going to Pizza express in Woking is an unusual thing for me to do,” he elaborated. “I’ve only been to Woking in a couple of times.” 

Assertions that he had sweated profusely dancing with Roberts at Tramps nightclub were also shutdown by the Prince. “I didn't sweat at the time because I had suffered what I would describe as an overdose of adrenaline in the Falklands War when I was shot at and I simply… it was almost impossible for me to sweat.”

The decision to set two glasses and a bottle of water on a table between inquisitor and subject was odd. You couldn’t help gawping at the drinks whenever the camera pulled back. Andrew projected a stoic befuddlement throughout. Maitlis, for her part, was clinical, without a hint of deference. She was steely, never needling. And she looked aghast when the Prince described Epstein’s actions as “unbecoming”. 

“Unbecoming?” Maitlis shot back. “He was a sex offender.” 

“Yeah, I’m sorry,” the Prince replied. “I’m being polite. I mean that in the sense that he was a sex offender.”

Social media kept a close watch and many on Twitter were describing the Newsnight special as the weirdest ever episode of The Crown, Netflix’s dramatisation of the life and times of Queen Elizabeth. This was certainly riveting watching. But the fact that it came against the backdrop of the unmasking of Epstein and of all the lives he had ruined made it as uncomfortable to sit through as it was bizarre and unprecedented.