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'A masterclass in how to give terrible answers': Inside that Prince Andrew interview

Prince Andrew's 2019 BBC interview is now the subject of a Netflix film.
Steve Parsons
Prince Andrew's 2019 BBC interview is now the subject of a Netflix film.

"The big get." In media lingo, that means the interview with the person at the center of a big story.

Think Monica Lewinsky after her affair with then-president Clinton, or the actor Alec Baldwin after the cinematographer was shot and killed on the set of his movie. Or Britain's Prince Andrew after his friend Jeffrey Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges.

Interviews like these can entail months of negotiations, calls, emails and meetings to persuade that person to go on the record. That is what happened in 2019, when BBC journalist Emily Maitlis sat down with Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, at Buckingham Palace.

Then-BBC Newsnight booker Sam McAlister had spent almost a year talking to Prince Andrew's private secretary and the prince himself. The result was an infamous interview in which Prince Andrew described Epstein's actions as "unbecoming," said the financier's home was a "convenient place to stay" during a trip to New York, and said he had a condition that meant he couldn't sweat.

The booking and the interview have now been dramatized in the new Netflix film Scoop, released this month. McAlister spoke with All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly about how she got the interview, and how she kept a poker face as the interview played out before her eyes.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Mary Louise Kelly: So your task was not only landing the interview — talking the palace and the prince into doing this — but talking them into doing a serious news interview where they would not be able to vet or control the questions in any way. Walk us through the argument that persuaded them. What did you say?

Sam McAlister: Well, there's a double argument, right? Here is a man who used to be effectively a national hero in the United Kingdom. He was the beloved son of the Queen, her favorite son by all accounts, a war hero. And now he was effectively a problem prince at best. And then, on the more pretentious level, of course, there was a view of Prince Andrew about him and his behaviors and the allegations against him, which, of course, he strenuously denies. But it was a double opportunity: a human opportunity to return to the life he had, and a royal opportunity to basically restore his reputation in some ways. So I feel it was those two things that made this really a dream opportunity, at least on paper, for him.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Andrew (right) in June 2019.
Chris Jackson / Getty Images
Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Andrew (right) in June 2019.

Kelly: Was there a moment in the negotiations where you could tell, "I got him?" Like, that just landed. He's going to do it.

McAlister: There was a moment where I thought we might have him. The last negotiation is face to face with Prince Andrew and a surprise guest, his daughter Princess Beatrice, in Buckingham Palace. I mean, you can imagine how overwhelming that was. It was about two hours long. I felt we had a rapport. Emily, the presenter, was also there and Stuart Maclean, who was the deputy editor. And at that moment of rapport, there's a moment of peril, and there's a moment of chance. And I said something quite bold. I told him the truth, which was always my style, that he was known as "Randy Andy."

And that moment is really where he's [either] going to laugh, and he knows that we have integrity and trust and we're honest with him, or he's going to slam the door in our face. Now, luckily it was the former. But you never, ever know if someone's going to say yes until you get that final call.

Kelly: So you get the yes. The interview is taking place. The prince's answers are sounding increasingly tone deaf, let me put it that way. Take me to that room. Where are you, and what is going through your mind?

McAlister: Oh, my gosh. So I'm about 15 feet behind him. And I used to be a criminal lawyer, and I used to represent people accused of all kinds of things. And one of the great skills of that world is poker face. And thank goodness for poker face — 15 feet behind those incredible answers, trying not to show any emotion, trying not to communicate any panic or fear or consternation. And all I can see is the back of his head. So I saw the front of him for the first time when it went out a couple of days later. But it really was a masterclass in how to give terrible answers and, from my tiny perspective, a small, personal masterclass in showing no emotion whatsoever on your face for an hour — one of the longest hours in television history, I would say.

Rufus Sewell as Prince Andrew in the Netflix film <em>Scoop</em>.
Peter Mountain / Netflix
Rufus Sewell as Prince Andrew in the Netflix film Scoop.

Kelly: I mean, was there a moment where you're thinking, "Oh, my God, this is just going completely off the rails?"

McAlister: I think it was almost every moment. It was like building. And after the first answer, which was his mildest answer, every line was a news line. Just watching them kind of pile on top of one another over and over. It was really journalistically, obviously, the highlight of my career and quite an extraordinary experience.

Kelly: Well, the fallout, the consequences from this interview were almost immediate. Just a few days afterward, Prince Andrew stepped back from royal duties. Did you have a sense, even as the interview was unfolding, like, this is going to have just extraordinary consequences?

McAlister: I knew it was huge. I'm not going to lie. I knew how consequential it was in theory. But the idea that it would topple a member of the royal family, effectively — you know, sacked by his own mother and we'd still be talking about it, let alone that I would have the opportunity of this incredible movie — it would have sounded like I was drunk if I'd said that to you. So I knew it was a scoop, but I just did not know it was the scoop of scoops.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.