Hats off to Newsnight. BBC 2’s flagship political show bagged itself an almighty royal scoop. Emily Maitlis was given an hour to quiz Prince Andrew about his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex-offender who was found dead in his jail cell in August. The first bombshell of the night was the news that months of negotiation had led up to this stage-managed encounter in a Buckingham Palace drawing room. ‘Normally we’d be discussing your work,’ opened Maitlis, as if her main ambition in life is to cover the potterings of minor royals.
‘We’ve been talking to Newsnight for about six months,’ agreed the prince, ‘about doing something around the work that I was doing … and actually it’s very good opportunity and I’m delighted to be able to see you today.’
Having dispensed with the fake-news about the prince’s ‘work’, Maitlis moved on to the killer-topic - Epstein. What followed was a glorious blend of the embarrassing, the questionable and the downright nutty. Many of the prince’s phrases and references are bound to enter the lexicon of stand-up comedy.
He trundled around in circles trying to distance himself from Epstein. At first, he claimed that he visited the billionaire’s American properties only in their owner’s absence.
‘Quite often, if I was in the US, and he wasn’t there, he’d say why don’t you come and use my houses.’
Later, he admitted flying to Epstein’s New York mansion specifically to meet him. Several times he mentioned Epstein’s girlfriend Ghislaine, (daughter of Robert Maxwell who named his yacht, Lady Ghislaine, in her honour), to explain the development of their friendship. Were the two men all that chummy?
‘It would be a considerable stretch to say he was a very, very close friend.’
Yet Epstein was invited to Princess Beatrice’s 18th birthday party at Windsor Castle. ‘That [invitation] was intended for Ghislaine,’ he explained. Epstein was ‘the plus-one.’
An arms-length relationship, therefore. And yet Andrew’s summary at the end of the interview suggests a much tighter association.
‘It has been what I would describe as a constant sore in the family. We all knew him.’
After Epstein had been convicted of procuring under-age girls, the prince terminated their friendship. But he handled this badly at the time, and he compounded his blunders in front of Maitlis. Most people attempting to sever ties with an embarrassing criminal would simply cease all contact. Andrew sought a personal meeting.
‘Doing it over the phone was the chicken’s way of doing it. I had to go and see him and talk to him.’ He repeated this sense of obligation a moment later. ‘I had to go and see him. I had to go. I had to.’
Maitlis failed to probe the prince’s reasons for crossing the Atlantic to perform a task that an equerry might have completed with a one-line email. Instead, she focussed on the four days Andrew spent at Epstein’s New York home.
‘It was a convenient place to stay,’ he offered.
Video footage taken near Epstein’s house, as Maitlis pointed out, showed young girls coming and going during his visit. The prince admitted it was ‘like a railway station’ but, ‘I wasn’t party to any of that.’ Ultimately he pinned the blame on a personal failing:
‘My judgement was probably coloured by my tendency to be too honourable.’
These bizarre replies, ill-considered as they appeared, weren’t nearly as damaging as an admission that popped out by accident. Maitlis asked about a party thrown in December 2010 to celebrate Epstein’s release from jail.
‘You were invited as guest of honour.’
‘No I didn’t go,’ said the prince, but then reflected on the date. ‘Oh in 2010? That, there was, there certainly wasn’t a party to celebrate his release in December. Because it was a small dinner party. There only were only eight or ten of us.’
Was he serious? The prince had earlier boasted about his role with a children’s charity, the NSPCC, and now he was admitting that he saluted a sex-offender’s release from jail by attending a celebratory supper. Invitations from youth charities are unlikely to trouble his diary in future.
Maitlis moved to Virginia Matthews who claims she had an affair with Andrew while she was a teenager. The prince seemed on surer ground here and he mounted a defence on several fronts. He dismissed the famous photograph of himself with an arm encircling Matthews’s waist as bogus. Epstein didn’t carry a camera, he said.
Maitlis pointed out the camera belonged to Matthews. She asked about Matthews’s report that he perspired heavily while they were dancing at Tramp nightclub. The prince responded with one of the strangest claims in the history of sexual gossip.
He doesn’t sweat.
‘I suffered an overdose of adrenalin during the Falklands War when I was shot at. And it was almost impossible for me to sweat.’
Heaping more doubt on the photograph, (‘doctored’ he suggested), he said that he always wears a suit and tie in London and that he shrinks from ‘public displays of affection’.
Every snapper on the royal circuit will be sifting their archives for images that disprove these claims.
He added a footnote that sounded a bit rum. He has never ventured upstairs at Ghislaine’s home where the shot is located. He said that twice. But how does he recognise an area of the house that he has yet to visit?
The best was saved till last. He claimed that Matthews had her dates in a muddle and that while the pair were alleged to be at Tramp, the prince was in the Woking branch of Pizza Express with his daughters.
He remembered this, he said, because it was ‘very unusual’.
The palace security-log will confirm his whereabouts that afternoon. But it’s not inconceivable that the pizza banquet in Woking and the meeting at Tramp occurred sequentially on the same day.
This interview is a career-defining calamity for the prince. Until now he has relied on silence – effectively a scorched-earth policy – which works by starving the monster to death. But he hasn’t just thrown it a few meagre scraps. This is a feast on which it will gorge for years.