“I realised within minutes of sitting down that it was going to be explosive,” says Emily Maitlis, as she recalls the interview last November with Prince Andrew that has earned Newsnight a nomination in the News coverage category at this year’s BAFTA Television Awards. “First, he was tackling the subject matter head on. Secondly, the lack of apology or any real expression of regret told me that the prince still believed that his actions had broadly been the right ones. And thirdly, the level of detail was unlike anything I was expecting. It was just astonishing to be in that room listening. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
Back at the Newsnight base at London’s Broadcasting House, the programme editor, Esme Wren, was fearing the worst as her presenter sat down across town at Buckingham Palace. “I was actually waiting for Emily to call me and say they’d pulled it or cut it short after ten minutes. At the time, I felt like a father standing outside the labour ward waiting to hear news,” she recalls. In the end, of course, it was a successful delivery — for Newsnight anyway. The interview had been a year in the planning and Maitlis is relieved that the team held out for the in-depth interview they wanted: “We could have done something shorter, easier and less comprehensive much earlier. But we sat it out until we were given the assurance that it would be the kind of interview we needed to do. I’m glad we waited and were properly prepared for it.”
She and Wren had role-played what they thought might be every possible response the prince could give to the questions about his links to the disgraced financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. After all, Wren had told Andrew’s representatives that he would be “asked about every piece of information in the public domain that we could gather”.
Yet despite the prep work, Maitlis was still apprehensive. “I was incredibly nervous. How could I not be? I remember Esme saying, ‘This interview has to be a document that people can return to in the future. It might be the only chance we get to set the record straight.’ So we kept it very close to our chests until it was done. The fear was that the more people who knew, the more likely it was that something would go wrong.”
After Maitlis returned to the office, she and Wren sat down in the editing suite to watch the footage, an experience that left the editor “exhilarated and terrified” by what she was witnessing: “It was there that the penny dropped for me on how significant this was. We’d assumed that he’d want to show empathy to the victims or pin the blame on Jeffrey Epstein. We couldn’t understand why he hadn’t done that. We definitely thought he’d be spikier — in fact, Emily said that, in the role-playing, I’d been a lot tougher as Prince Andrew than he turned out to be in person.”
Following the broadcast, judgement was passed by the public and the press, with Maitlis lauded for the calm, forensic way she took Andrew to task. Critiques of Prince Andrew, though, were rather more scathing, with his answers to the probing described by many, including former Buckingham Palace press secretary Dickie Arbiter, as “a car crash”.
The current royal PRs, however, have stayed silent on the matter — at least in public. Says Wren: “There hasn’t been any mudslinging from the palace. Of course, they feel that the interview didn’t go brilliantly, but that wasn’t through our wrongdoing. We delivered a quite exceptional piece of journalism.”
“We know that the palace was happy with the interview. We had plenty of engagement with them after it went out,” reveals Maitlis. “I think their shock was not at the interview itself, but the reaction it caused in the days and weeks afterwards. Now, eight months on, it may feel like ‘a moment of television’, but we should never forgot the people at the centre of this whole story — Epstein’s accusers and what they’d been through and were, in some cases, still fighting. It was never meant to be a badge of honour — it was meant to be a chance to get to the heart of a story that had confused many people for so long.”
The Newsnight special also arguably ended up giving fresh impetus to the FBI investigation into Epstein’s crimes, something that has led recently to the arrest of the prince’s friend Ghislaine Maxwell on sex trafficking charges, which she denies. Speaking about Maitlis’s skill at drawing out key information from her interviewees, Wren says, “She’s like a thoroughbred racehorse — if you give her the right preparation, she’ll outstrip everyone.”
Maitlis in turn feels that Newsnight has consolidated its position as the BBC’s flagship current affairs show thanks to the focus of Wren, who was appointed editor back in February 2018: “Esme is frankly incredible. She always appears so serene on the surface, but below the surface, there’s a huge amount of work going on that I never see. My sense is that Esme knew exactly what kind of programme she believed Newsnight could be, but she’s always been hands-off enough to let us feel we were finding our own way there.”