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20 November 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 11:12am

Manners maketh monsters

By Anna Leszkiewicz

At the end of the BBC interview with Prince Andrew – after almost an hour of forensic questioning, examining the crimes of convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein and his relationship with the prince, and the accusations levelled against them both – came an extraordinary moment of understatement. When asked by Emily Maitlis if he regretted his relationship with Epstein, Prince Andrew, 59, equivocated. “Do I regret the fact that he has quite obviously conducted himself in a manner unbecoming? Yes.” Maitlis blinked. “Unbecoming? He was a sex offender.” The prince brushed off his misstep. “I’m sorry, I’m being polite.”

Millions watched the Newsnight interview with the Queen’s second son, which was broadcast from Buckingham Palace on 16 November and dominated the news cycle for days afterwards as a result of Prince Andrew’s blasé attitude and implausible excuses. He admitted to a long friendship with Epstein, but denied Virginia Giuffre’s claims that she was forced to have sex with the prince three times when she was 17 – once in London after a night of dancing at Tramp nightclub, once in New York, and once on Epstein’s private island.

It felt like a study in extreme privilege. Sitting with his legs crossed in the middle of a huge room – empty but distractingly ornate – with his tie askew, the prince appeared strikingly unconcerned. He shook his head, raising or furrowing his brow in vague incredulity or incomprehension, at times admitting that he couldn’t answer Maitlis’s questions. His defence rested on his insistence that he does not remember Virginia Giuffre. To use his own “polite” language: “I have no recollection of ever meeting this lady.” Or: “I’m almost, in fact I’m convinced, that I was never in Tramp’s with her.” Almost in fact convinced.

How could he explain that he was photographed with Giuffre at the home of Epstein’s friend and alleged collaborator, Ghislaine Maxwell (who denies being involved)? “I can’t,” was his weak response. “I have simply no recollection of it ever being taken.” Did he categorically deny ever meeting Giuffre, or just not remember if he did? “I don’t know if I’ve met her.” All this doesn’t exactly instil great faith in the powers of Prince Andrew’s memory. 

The prince did not just come across as implausible and pathetic – the conversation frequently veered into the absurd. Despite photographic evidence of his meeting Giuffre, the prince said that he was at Pizza Express in Woking that day – one event his memory had bothered to preserve because “going to Pizza Express in Woking is an unusual thing for me to do”. He couldn’t have sweated while dancing, as Giuffre claims, because: “I have a peculiar medical condition, which is that I don’t sweat – or I didn’t sweat at the time.” He couldn’t have bought her drinks in a nightclub he has been seen in many times because, “I don’t know where the bar is in Tramp’s.” He couldn’t have been in London when he was photographed with her because, “In London, I wear a suit and tie. Those are my travelling clothes.”

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Prince Andrew showed little emotion and seemed not to realise the seriousness of the situation (or even the damage he was doing to the monarchy). It’s a strange kind of offhand arrogance that blinds someone to their own culpability. When asked about whether he felt his friendship with Epstein had legitimised the sex offender, Prince Andrew said, “Oh, I don’t, no. Funnily enough I don’t.” When was the last time he had seen Maxwell? “It was earlier this year, funnily enough!” In a moment of incomprehensible selfishness, he casually admitted that he did not regret his relationship with Epstein because “the people that I met and the opportunities that I was given” were “actually very useful”. He never expressed sorrow for the suffering of Epstein’s victims.

When he did seem outraged at Maitlis’s questions, they were not the ones you’d expect – like when she asked if he threw Maxwell a birthday party. “…No,” he said seriously. “It was a shooting weekend. Just a straightforward, straightforward shooting weekend.” A housekeeper suggests he was at Epstein’s Palm Beach home as often as four times a year: “FOUR times a year?!” He balked. “No!” It reminded me of Brett Kavanaugh, and the special emotion he preserved for his high school calendar. Clearly Prince Andrew has the capacity to both remember these details, and to feel extreme discomfort when his memories are contradicted. Why only these?

What was most striking about the interview was Andrew’s insistence on civility. He began by saying he was “delighted” to be interviewed – perhaps gracious in some contexts, but absurd during a public denial of sex offences. He claimed that his final four-day stay with Epstein  in New York (after his friend had been released from prison) was the “honourable” way to end the friendship – perhaps “too honourable”. And let’s not forget those words – “unbecoming”, “polite”. Even Maitlis’s final sign-off: “Your Royal Highness, thank you.”

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It was a stark demonstration that civility is defined by institutions of power and privilege to protect those with power and privilege. Like that huge, empty gilded room, this is an attitude that is morally vacant, dressed up in grand language. Refusing to name Epstein’s crimes, refusing to acknowledge the suffering of the victims, refusing to call a rapist a rapist – all this protects perpetrators at the expense of victims. And it doesn’t end with princes and palaces; euphemism, deference and silence blight all conversations about injustice, especially those concerning structural sexual abuse. Manners maketh monsters, and protect them, too.

This article appears in the 20 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over