It will, without question, go down in media’s history books. The Newsnight interview with Prince Andrew will be an enduring and horrible episode for the royal family – a family which has, in the Queen’s reign, become defined by television. This began with the allowing of the cameras into the coronation in 1953 and continued through the ground-breaking documentary, Royal Family, 50 years ago – in which mum and dad, who just happened to be the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, barbecued sausages for the family. But then it became a darker picture: Prince Charles confessing his adultery in a televised encounter with Jonathan Dimbleby in 1994, and Princess Diana’s jaw-dropping interview with Martin Bashir the following year. Royal weddings aside, you might have thought the Palace would have learned its lesson about the risks of television. But this year has come up with not one but two extraordinary additions to the canon: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last month talking about themselves in intimate detail for ITV, and now Prince Andrew appearing on Newsnight to talk about his friendship with a paedophile.
Amid the gigabytes of negative comment, we should pause for a moment on the “Newsnight” part of the equation. I am a fan of Newsnight, especially under its current editor Esmé Wren; but had I been advising the royal family, it would have been the very last programme I would have recommended for this interview. Given that they could have gone to pretty much any programme in Britain or even the wider world, Newsnight – with its reputation for tough interviewing and journalistic rigour – is the one to swerve. Call an American sofa show, instead.
That applies even more so to Emily Maitlis as an interviewer. Again, I’m an admirer. She is not without flaws – I feel I know too much about her own views about Europe – but she is still one of the best in the business. She is formidably intelligent and forensic and calm, which is precisely what should have put off a rather dim-seeming Prince with a haphazard grasp of detail. Her own account of the interview and the process leading up to it has an air of “I can’t believe they’re allowing me to do this”, and that instinct was spot-on.
What is also extraordinary is that the Palace let this be a no-holds-barred encounter. Here’s how these things normally work: access is granted often on the basis that the person being interviewed has some control (or in some printed magazines, complete control) – which starts from who they agree will ask the questions and on which platform. But editors are used to “the deal”: with a celebrity, for instance, there might be15 minutes of questions about the individual’s charity work and then the interviewee would accept that the journalist would ask a couple of questions about the latest scandal they’d been involved in. Another version of this can be heard most mornings on the Today programme, where the presenters will stick to the topic agreed for the broadcast – but slip in a couple of questions about something more pressing that has cropped up.
An infinite number of agreements have been made on this basis, and most broadcasters would only definitively pull out of an interview if there was a demand that the “hot” topic not be examined at all. These deals are imperfect, but usually both parties come out of them happy: the broadcaster has got five minutes’ worth, or whatever it is, of breaking news and the interviewee has had the chance to talk about the rest of their life. That seems to have been what Newsnight was expecting, before the Prince voluntarily offered himself up for dissection.
So the programme team deserve huge credit for their enterprise and persistence. They came up with a stunning hour of television that will have had the cheap white wine being poured in celebration in Broadcasting House. But it is impossible to see the Palace’s position as anything other than naïve and foolhardy. Yes, there was a case for putting Prince Andrew into the public domain, which it sounds like he was pressing for; but never in this format. Never, also, without being drilled in how to handle a media interview – the basics such as remembering to express regret to the victims and learning how to stonewall the trickier questions about his actions. From this sordid affair, at least one regal milestone has been created: the perfect example of how not to do it.