The Media Today

Prince Andrew, Emily Maitlis, and the art of the interview

November 18, 2019

In the summer, the arrest and subsequent death, in jail, of the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein cast an uncomfortable spotlight on those who knew Epstein, and were allegedly complicit in his crimes. Prince Andrew, the son of Britain’s Queen, was perhaps the most prominent among them: he stayed in numerous Epstein properties, and one of Epstein’s victims, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, says she was forced to have sex with Andrew on three occasions in 2001 and 2002. Yet in Britain—where tabloids routinely hyperventilate at breaches of royal protocol like Meghan Markle putting her hands (gasp!) in her pockets—sections of the press were accused of underplaying the allegations, and of a double standard. (As Vanity Fair’s Erin Vanderhoof put it in August, “Andrew’s issues are easy to condemn but difficult to understand, and that makes for unpleasant reading. But Meghan is photogenic and polarizing—perfect for filling column inches.”) The palace, for its part, seemed only too happy for the story to go away: aside from a pair of statements—one of which called Andrew “appalled” by Epstein’s “alleged crimes”—it stayed silent. (Marina Hyde, a Guardian columnist, called the “appalled” line “bullshit”: Andrew was pictured with Epstein after the latter already did jail time. “I get we have to pay for Andrew’s lifetime of jollies; but we don’t have to have our intelligence insulted by him.”)

Over the weekend, Andrew was back in the headlines in a big way. Surprisingly, that was of his own volition. Andrew agreed to sit down with Emily Maitlis, of the BBC, for a rare interview. It aired on Saturday night, to general public astonishment. When Maitlis asked why he’d stayed in the home of a convicted sex offender, Andrew replied that it was a “convenient place to stay,” and blamed his “tendency to be too honorable” for his acceptance of Epstein’s hospitality. Maitlis grilled Andrew about Roberts’s claims that he had sex with her; Andrew replied that he couldn’t have been with Roberts on the night in question because he’d been busy taking his daughter to a Pizza Express in Woking. (Pizza Express is a British restaurant chain that does reasonable food but is not typically frequented by the rich and famous; nor do royals commonly spend their downtime in Woking.) The bizarre claims continued: Andrew couldn’t have been perspiring, as Roberts claimed, because “an overdose of adrenaline in the Falklands War” left him unable to sweat; he could not simply have forgotten the episode because “If you’re a man it is a positive act to have sex with somebody.” Generally, people agreed, he came across as out of touch and insufficiently contrite.

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The reaction has been horrible for Andrew. Jonny Dymond, the BBC’s royal correspondent, said the interview “failed, badly”; Dickie Arbiter, a former royal press officer, called it “excruciating.” Big British papers were still leading with it this morning, despite the fact that there’s an election going on. (The Andrew story has cut through to the campaign trail, even though politicians don’t typically mix the royals up in democracy.) That included the tabloids. The Sun splashed that Andrew thinks his “CAR CRASH TV SEX QUIZ” went well; the Mail, on a different note, said Andrew “regrets” portions of the interview. The British edition of Metro called Andrew the “DUKE OF PORKIES.” (For the blessedly uninitiated, Andrew is the Duke of York, and “porkies” means “lies” in Cockney rhyming slang.)

Maitlis, for her part, won deserved, widespread praise for her work. She missed a couple of beats (a question alluding to conspiracies about Epstein’s death was an awkward choice), but on the whole, this was a masterclass in the art of the interview. Her questioning was forensic, meticulous, and, crucially, quiet: she gave Andrew the space to embarrass himself, without grandstanding or making herself the story. Her incredulity was sparing, and landed with more impact because of that: her look of disgust when Andrew called Epstein’s behavior “unbecoming” is perhaps the most memorable moment of a highly memorable interview. Maitlis’s style was almost legalistic. Toward the end, she turned the screw, asking Andrew if he would be willing to repeat his denials under oath. Andrew demurred, stammering something about “legal advice.”

Commentators have frequently decried Epstein’s death as a gross injustice—a permanent evasion of closure for his victims. There’s some truth in that, but this story didn’t die with Epstein: the press can continue to hold him and his alleged enablers to account. That’s always a hard task, especially with someone like Andrew, whose status, ultimately, is unconditional. But it can be done. On Saturday, Maitlis showed how.

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Below, more on Prince Andrew and the interview:

  • Behind the story: Writing for The Times of London, Maitlis explains how the Andrew interview—“the most extraordinary encounter of my professional life”—came to be. Maitlis says the sitdown only happened with approval from “higher up,” meaning the Queen; this morning, the Telegraph has a different account, claiming the Queen did not have a say, and that Andrew’s office operated “in a silo.” On the subject of Andrew’s office, The Guardian reports that Jason Stein, his recently hired PR maven, quit two weeks ago, after his advice that Andrew avoid the interview was ignored.
  • Meta: Wrapping up the interview, Maitlis asked Andrew if the interview was proof of a “sea change” in how the royal family confronts damaging stories. “There is a whole range of things that you face now that you didn’t face 25 years ago, because it was just the print media,” Andrew replied. He added: “Choosing to get out there and talk about these things, it’s almost a mental-health issue, to some extent, for me.”
  • Gender pay gap: In recent years, the BBC has faced sharp scrutiny over the pay gap between its male and female talent. In 2017, it offered Maitlis—who has long been a star anchor for the broadcaster—a new contract after admitting that she was not among its 96 best-paid on-air staff. According to salary figures released this year, Maitlis still earns less than many of her colleagues: the seven best-paid stars are all men.
  • Pizza the action: Spare a thought, in all this, for the PR people at Pizza Express, whose Woking branch isn’t typically a magnet for media scrutiny. The Guardian’s Aaron Walawalkar visited; he found that unlike Andrew, most patrons don’t have a clear memory of their first visit.

Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, the televised impeachment hearings continued, with Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted US ambassador to Ukraine, in the hot seat. The process continues tomorrow, with Alexander Vindman, Jennifer Williams, Kurt Volker, and Tim Morrison all set to appear. Yesterday, Trump—who attacked Yovanovitch while she was testifying—labeled Williams, who is an aide to Mike Pence, a “Never Trumper”; Pence’s press office did not support Williams, instead passing the buck to the State Department, which employs her. On the Sunday shows, the president’s defenders continued to contort themselves, including around Trump’s real-time intimidation of witnesses. On Meet the Press, Ron Johnson, Republican senator for Wisconsin, said it would have been better if the Ukraine episode had never come to light, and instead been resolved “behind the scenes.”
  • On Saturday, Trump took an unscheduled trip to Walter Reed Medical Center. On Fox News, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said the president was simply getting “a head start” on his annual physical exam, and played down rumors about his health. (Host Jeanine Pirro concurred that Trump is “almost superhuman.”) But for some, Grisham’s assurances rang hollow. The Post’s Karen Tumulty says we know the visit wasn’t routine “because—well, because those people lie about pretty much everything,” with Trump’s health having been the subject of particularly egregious falsehoods.
  • Maria Bustillos, CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, saw the network’s new logo showcasing 18 of its anchors, and decided to profile them. The logo’s strapline—“This is who we are. This is why you watch.”—raises more questions than answers, she says. “The obvious message is that these eighteen people possess characteristics that will persuade you to choose MSNBC… But it’s anybody’s guess what those characteristics might be.”
  • In Denver, Craig Silverman, a conservative talk-radio host (not the BuzzFeed reporter), said he was fired by 710 KNUS on Saturday—in the middle of a broadcast—because he criticized Trump. “I cannot and will not toe strict Trump party line,” he tweeted afterward. KNUS, which is owned by Salem Media Group, says it fired Silverman for boosting a rival station, not for his views; Silverman replied that he works for KNUS on contract.
  • For CJR, Joshua Carroll charts the rise and fall of Ross Dunkley, a controversial Australian who bought and operated newspapers in Southeast Asia. In August, a court in Myanmar sentenced Dunkley to 13 years in prison, on drugs charges. Dunkley says a rival may have framed him to stop him from launching a company, but, Carroll says, “press freedom advocates, usually alert to issues in Myanmar, have not gone near his case.”
  • BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein has a deep dive on two possible futures for the internet: in a quickly fragmenting world, will the US model of “chaotic, corporate-approved” freedom continue to proliferate, or will state control of the web—à la China—win out? Proponents of the first model are grappling with their case that “freedom online is preferable to order.”
  • Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley, of the Times, obtained “one of the most significant leaks of government papers from inside China’s ruling Communist Party in decades”: 403 pages of records related to the state’s detention of Muslims in Xinjiang. The documents confirm a massive campaign of coercion, giving lie to China’s public denials.
  • And the Times also reported over the weekend that Trump’s tax cut reduced FedEx’s tax bill to $0. Yesterday, Frederick W. Smith, chairman and CEO of FedEx, hit back—challenging Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger and the paper’s business editor to a public debate on tax policy and “the relative societal benefits of business investments.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.