This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


Nothing prepares you for going to Buckingham Palace to meet a member of the royal family to discuss his friendship with a convicted sex offender. But, in November 2019, as I waited outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, scrambling for my BBC ID – and for a modicum of calm – that’s exactly what I was composing myself for.

This final face-to-face negotiation with Prince Andrew, and a surprise guest (his daughter, Princess Beatrice), was the culmination of over a year of contact with the Palace. Primarily conducted with Prince Andrew’s chief of staff, Amanda Thirsk, the negotiation was conducted painstakingly over many months.

It started, innocently enough, with an email in my inbox from a PR inviting us to do a “puff piece” (industry speak for an item that doesn’t allow any news questions) about the Duke of York and his charitable work with young entrepreneurs. We declined that offer. We don’t do those at Newsnight. And then, a few months later, came an invitation to the Palace to meet Amanda (I was so certain they’d say no that I didn’t even tell my boss, Esme Wren).

The negotiation went great. Amanda was clever, calm, direct and frank. An interview was on the table. But there was a red line – no questions about Jeffrey Epstein. And so, even though at that stage (May 2019) it wasn’t the huge story that it became, we declined again. No interview.

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But then, things changed dramatically. Epstein was arrested, charged, awaiting trial, dead. Ghislaine Maxwell, his partner in heinous sexual crimes, was finally tracked down, arrested too. And the light was shining on Prince Andrew and the allegations made against him of sexual assault by Virginia Giuffre, allegations that he still denies, but which were casting a shadow over his life, and the reputation of the entire royal family.

And so, here we were, over a year later. Myself, Emily Maitlis and Newsnight’s deputy editor, Stewart Maclean, across the table from the Duke of York, Princess Beatrice and Amanda Thirsk.

How on earth did you persuade him to do it is the question I am always asked. And, in truth, I will never know for certain. But my job – booking high-profile interviewees for Newsnight (from Elon Musk to Justin Trudeau) – taught me to find the “sweet spot”. And, in my view, Prince Andrew wanted to return to public life, to the many privileges he had once enjoyed.

He wanted to vindicate himself, and to be able to walk his daughter, Beatrice, down the aisle, to live the charmed life he had enjoyed before his damning association with Epstein. He needed, I said, to speak to the nation, to change the narrative. It was up to him to give a convincing account of himself. To change the perception of his guilt. Clearly, he thought he could do that. Of course, we now know he couldn’t.

And so, he said yes and just three days later, I was sitting 15 feet behind him in Buckingham Palace, with Emily in my line of sight, listening to almost an hour of some of the most memorable, excruciating and impactful interview questions and answers in the history of BBC journalism.

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At the end of the interview, you might assume that Prince Andrew was ashen and crestfallen. Quite the opposite. He was upbeat, cheery. He clearly thought he had done an amazing job. Emily went on a tour of the Palace with him, while we all scrambled, in shock, to get the interview back to the BBC, to start preparing it to share with the nation. With the world.

Of course, we all know how the interview was received. “Pizza Express, Woking”, “I didn’t sweat at the time” and “a straightforward shooting weekend” launched a thousand memes. HRH was universally condemned. And, just four days later, it was announced that he was stepping back from his royal duties. Sacked, in effect, by his own mother. No vindication, just humiliation.

The interview effectively ruined his chances of a return to public life. Now and again, there are moments when he’s spotted at a family event, or riding a horse, behind the wheel of a car on a country estate. But it seems inconceivable that he will ever fully return to the royal fold. Some people may feel sorry for him. My view is that the interview was fair, and it was his answers, his failure to apologise, to rue his association with Epstein, that created this. And that this will be his permanent fate.

As for Amanda Thirsk (who is played by Keeley Hawes), after some prevarication, she lost her job. I really felt for her. In all of our dealings she had been the epitome of professional. She was nothing but fair, incredibly helpful and efficient, clever and direct, and behaved with total integrity throughout. I guess we both knew that, if things went wrong, we’d be in the line of fire. As ever, the second in command often takes the fall.

Billie Piper and Sam McAlister on the set of Scoop
Billie Piper and Sam McAlister on the set of Scoop. Netflix

For me, it was back to work as normal for a while. And then, after so many months of being asked how it happened, I decided to write a book proposal. The gist? That I was the only person who could tell the whole story of how the interview came about. It’s a role that’s usually invisible, booking interviews behind the scenes, so it was a huge risk, but I took it – left a job I loved, rolled the dice (especially risky as I’m a single parent).

Usually, that would be it, but then came a mini miracle – a number of production companies were interested in my tale. And then, the maddest outcome of all, Netflix optioned my book. My life was about to become a movie. With Billie Piper – resplendent in my default outfit of black, sunglasses, high-heeled snakeskin boots and waves of blonde curls – re-creating my life, my work, my walk, my story. It’s bonkers. She’s so brilliant. I’m the luckiest woman alive.

As for me, I’m now a speaker, telling my tale around the world, I’ve done a TEDx talk, and I’m a Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE (teaching negotiation, of course...).

Emily Maitlis and Sam McAlister standing next to each other, holding Women in Film & Television Awards and smiling.
Emily Maitlis and Sam McAlister at the 2021 Women in Film & Television Awards. David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for WFTV Awards

The interview – and this movie – is a hugely important tale of the power of journalism. Why it matters so much. It’s the story of the women who made it happen, the brilliant Emily Maitlis (played by Gillian Anderson) and the talented and forensic Newsnight editor Esme Wren (Romola Garai). It’s a tribute to the BBC, to the team at Newsnight and to the hard work of the amazing people behind the camera who help make these moments happen.

Sadly, things are now quite different at Newsnight. Relentless cuts mean it’s been culled to a mere 30 minutes. The team is facing huge redundancies. There’s talk of more cuts in the future. This is a tragedy – Newsnight is the epitome of public service journalism and, without it, the powerful will sleep more soundly in bed and the things that matter to us all – free speech, fearless journalism and holding people to account – will be ever more perilously out of reach.

Read our full interviews with Scoop stars Gillian Anderson, Billie Piper, Keeley Hawes and Rufus Sewell in the new issue of Radio Times magazine – out now.

Scoop Radio Times cover

Scoop will be available to stream on Netflix from Friday 5th April 2024. Sign up for Netflix from £4.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream.

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