The head of Prince Andrew’s communications team quit a couple of weeks ago, allegedly after disagreeing over the wisdom of a interview on Newsnight. After watching that interview, it’s not a decision you could quibble with.
It shows, for one thing that at least someone had their head screwed on over Saturday night’s set-piece. It was a disaster, and was only ever likely to be a disaster. If Andrew hoped for the level of sympathy Princess Diana got after her infamous Martin Bashir interview, the self-delusion is higher than we thought.
If you’re going to go on TV to discuss and explain your friendship with a man like Jeffrey Epstein, that is a friendship with a convicted sex offender, you’d better be well prepared. But it showed that the Prince was doing this off his own bat and doing so badly under-advised and under-briefed.
This was a high stakes gamble with way too little effort put into the notion he needed to do his homework, to understand what he needed to say if he wanted to persuade a sceptical audience that he was a naif guilty of errors of judgement in his friendships, rather than a man who has kept company with trafficked teenagers.
There’s a huge range of issues way more serious in all this than bad PR, of course, but if Prince Andrew thought the interview would be a get out of jail free card, he needed to work a heck of a lot harder. He even got the basics wrong:
He is not a victim
The best Andrew could have hoped for was that he came across as a man whose attempt to do the right thing tripped him up. This is his “I was too honourable” defence – that he was a victim of circumstance and the cunning of others. In all that, he forgot there were real victims and failed to express any level of interest or sympathy for them.
At the very end of the interview, his expert interrogator, Emily Maitlis, offered him the chance to speak about anything that had gone unsaid. This was his chance to offer up something, some level of awareness that there were young women trafficked for the sexual gratification of powerful men, and that at least some of those men were his friends. Instead, he blustered about Maitlis having “dragged out: of him ‘most’ of what needed to be said.
This is not a time for ‘no regrets’
The prince refused the opportunity to express regret for his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, claiming the relationship was some sort of “learning opportunity”. Well, quite.
If there was a moment when his refusal to disown Jeffrey Epstein hit home, it was surely Maitlis’s incredulity when the prince talked of Epstein’s “unbecoming” behaviour.
“Unbecoming? He was a sex offender.” The contempt was writ large.
Epstein was a sex offender. He trafficked young girls for sex with himself and others like him. He’s also dead. How difficult is this? It’s time to drop him...
He’s out of his depth
Obviously, Prince Andrew’s life has been one of extraordinary privilege. He’s not used to being challenged. Maitlis’ interrogation was unforgiving in its sparseness. She’s had harder interviews than this one.
She put the questions and facts to him as if all she had to do was to keep passing him the spade and watch him dig an ever deeper hole. The prince’s exaggerated mannerisms of surprise, the switching from emphatic denial to vague obfuscation were the actions of a man not at ease with the truth.
If you’re talking about a photograph of you with your arm around someone who says they were forced to have sex with you, then “that is what I would describe as me in that picture’ is not a sentence that is destined to land convincingly.
To rely on facts, they need to be provable
We’re soon to find out the true robustness of the booking systems in the Woking branch of Pizza Express and what the royal pizza of choice might be. But many of the other facts Andrew provided were dismantled in seconds by the Sherlocks of Twitter.
– I don’t sweat because I was shot at in the Falklands... cue pictures of a sweaty Andrew emerging from a ‘nitespot’.
– I don’t do public displays of affection... here are some photos of Andrew being handsy with various women.
– I only wear suits in London... except in this snap of him in much the same outfit as he’s wearing in that photo, only in London, weeks earlier.
Too easy. By the end of the hour, Andrew looked like a man trying to escape a situation, only for the guards’ searchlights to pick him out with ease. There was an arrogance in the idea that all he had to do was show up and his subjects would be grateful for that. If he was expecting that his position would protect him, he knows a lot better now.
The only question remaining is what happens next. He hasn’t cleared anything up, he’s left a bigger mess. What we don’t yet know was whether this was an attempt to tidy up ahead of a bigger storm. Things might be about to get worse.
Jimmy Leach is editor-in-chief of HuffPost UK, a former director at Freud Communications and former senior associate at Portland Communications.