Acres of newsprint have already been devoted to Emily Maitlis’ interview with the Duke of York, in particular debating whether he should have agreed to it in the first place and, having agreed, whether he succeeded in countering a long list of awkward questions. The near-unanimous verdict is that he failed to offer convincing explanations for his behaviour.
But what of Emily Maitlis’ own performance? As she herself admitted, there has never been another interview like it. And for an interviewer, there has never been an opportunity like this.
Much thought will have gone into the opening question, but “why were you staying with a convicted sex offender?” was not the best start. The prince begins his reply – “Right…”. He recognises the question, he may even have rehearsed it. He can then deflect the question – “Well, at the time…”
A better start might have been – “What do you think of Jeffrey Epstein?” It’s invitingly open, but at the same time treacherous. Any experienced interviewer like Maitlis will know that the pat answer would begin – “When I first met him…”. At that point she can jump in and hurry him into a more challenging reply – “But what do you think of him now?”
Like a chess player thinking several moves ahead, she will know that he has no choice but to criticise Epstein’s activities. So she strikes immediately – “And yet you stayed at his houses. Do you think you should have realised what was going on?”
There are several possible strategies for an interview as high profile as this. One route – the David Frost way – is to soften the interviewee up with a series of “who? what? when?” questions – factual inquiries which can be met with safe, factual replies. In this strategy the aim is to relax the interviewee, and then catch them off their guard with a series of increasingly tough questions.
Or you begin with questions that goes right to the heart of the issue, knowing that in an hour-long interview there will always be a chance to return to the theme.
Maitlis began by concentrating on the two men – the prince and Epstein, their friendship and how far it went. She didn’t let him off the hook. “So would you describe him as a good friend?”. The prince’s visits to Epstein’s many houses had already been detailed a few moments earlier, so he was caught – trapped into a stumbling explanation – “it would be a stretch to say we were good friends”. Maitlis was sowing doubt; it was beginning to not add up.
She made him sound naive. “Did you trust him?” “I probably did”.
She offered a different perspective. Epstein was a guest at Windsor and Sandringham, she said, “brought right into the heart of the royal family.”
Much of the criticism of the prince’s performance has centred around his failure to express sympathy or support for the under-age girls trafficked by Epstein. Maitlis cleverly avoided inviting him to do so. She could easily have asked what he felt about the girls involved, but by not asking the question, she left him dangling, uncaring, unsympathetic.
She was armed with all the dates that appear to demonstrate the prince’s continuing contact with Epstein even after his conviction and imprisonment. March 10, 2001 became a focus for her questions and Maitlis pressed hard – “Virginia Roberts was very specific. Are you sure you didn’t meet her, go to Tramp with her, have sex with her?” His reply – “No, I was at Pizza Express in Woking” – will become the punch-line of countless jokes.
Maitlis challenged him again and again, all the time building the impression that there was real substance to the questions.
So on to the round-the-waist photo, apparently showing the prince with the same girl. “I have no recollection of the photo ever being taken…” This was the pinpoint focus of the interview. The photographic evidence appeared to contradict the prince, and if he was lying about the photo, much of the rest of his protestations of innocence would collapse.
In constantly pressing him, she was running a risk. The prince could have challenged her openly – “You’ve already asked me that question several times. Why are you asking it again?” But at that point the interview would have become openly confrontational, and, as the prince must have realised, that would make it even more compulsive viewing.
However, while the accusations and the requests for further explanation kept piling up, his constant denials – and Maitlis knew this only too well – would only be justified if there were no more damning evidence or victims waiting in the wings. Maitlis had to draw a fine line between justified pressure and profitless repetition. At the same time, she demonstrated that the finger-jabbing, constant interruptions of her regular Newsnight interviews could be replaced by a quieter, more deadly style. It was a class act.