It seemed, for a moment, as though Prince Andrew might worm his way out of facing any consequences for his association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. And then Prince Andrew took it upon himself to give a no-holds-barred interview to the BBC and stepped dramatically onto his own dick while the world watched, astonished at how much worse he made his situation.
On Saturday, BBC’s Newsnight aired a nearly 50-minute, uninterrupted interview between Prince Andrew and broadcaster Emily Maitlis, who cut into him with the icy precision of a forensic pathologist conducting an autopsy. Clearly, Andrew was hoping the interview would return everything to normal, allowing him to do anodyne charity work without having to answer any further questions about Epstein. It backfired.
His claims in the interview were astonishing in their sheer cluelessness and blinkered privilege; frequently he sounded like a MeToo episode of British satirical comedy Blackadder. For instance, Andrew claimed one of the encounters with accuser Virginia Roberts—who says that Epstein trafficked her as a teenager to men he knew, including Andrew—was impossible because, on the alleged date, he vividly remembered taking his daughter Beatrice to a party at a Pizza Express in Woking. He also disputed Roberts’s account on the basis of the sweating: “There’s a slight problem with the sweating, because I have a peculiar medical condition, which is that I don’t sweat. Or I didn’t sweat at the time, because I had suffered what I would describe as an overdose of adrenaline in the Falklands War when I was shot at. And it was almost impossible for me to sweat. And it’s only because I have done a number of things in the recent past that I am starting to be able to do that again.”
Even more, Andrew frequently just sounded like he had no idea just how serious the situation was. At one point, Maitlis asked him about his 2010 visit with Epstein in New York: “You were staying at the house of a convicted sex offender.” Andrew: “It was a convenient place to stay.” At another point, he admitted, “Do I regret the fact that he has quite obviously conducted himself in a manner unbecoming? Yes.” Maitlis replied, openly incredulous after showing laser-like intensity: “Unbecoming? He was a sex offender.” “I’m sorry, I’m being polite,” Andrew backtracked, even as he insisted that there was nothing wrong in the friendship before Epstein was a known sex offender and that he had never seen any signs of wrongdoing in all their time together. He came off as neither credible nor persuasive.
Andrew should have known better than to speak frankly with a journalist in this particularly no-holds-barred manner. Within recent memory, this sort of special sit-down has gone very badly for the monarchy. Forget the press-related travails of Harry and Meghan; don’t be fooled by the frankness they displayed in the special on their trip to Africa, because those remarks were relatively brief and their relationship with the press remains ultimately characterized by tight control. And besides, for a crisis of this magnitude, we’ve got to return for comparison to the Windsors’ scandal-ridden early 1990s. Specifically, to Andrew’s big brother Charles.
In 1994, in advance of the 25th anniversary of his investiture as Prince of Wales, Charles sat down with journalist Jonathan Dimbleby, who was also writing a biography of the heir. It was supposed to be a humanizing, sympathetic glimpse at the prince, whose reputation had taken a battering as his marriage with Diana fell apart in public, but Dimbleby asked the obvious question, and Charles admitted that he had been “faithful and honorable” to Diana—that is, until the marriage “became irretrievably broken down, us both having tried.” He straight-up admitted cheating on a beloved celebrity, even as he was attempting to shore up his popularity.
Everybody already knew, of course, but Charles’s confession to the entire nation and the rest of the world was a disaster. As the New York Times pointed out at the time, the Crown was just beginning to claw its way back from the negative headlines of 1992, the year that saw Princess Anne’s divorce, the separations of both the Yorks and the Waleses, the publication of photos of Fergie sunbathing topless with a male friend, and the publication—with Diana’s cooperation—of the scandalous Diana: Her True Story. Charles managed to upset the apple cart yet again.
The next year, Diana also sat down for an interview with Martin Bashir on Panorama, in which she expressed doubts about Charles’s ability to take on the “top job” and told the world there had been three people in her marriage, so it had been a little crowded. It certainly incurred her plenty of public sympathy, sealing the narrative of her marriage in her favor so soundly it took more than a decade of effort to rehabilitate Charles and smooth the way for Camilla’s entry into the family. But it wasn’t exactly a roaring success for her, either. “Although the interview won Diana a great deal of public sympathy, it also alienated her from senior figures in the Royal Household and played into the hands of her critics who thought she was ‘unhinged,’” according to the Daily Mail, and her former private secretary, Patrick Jephson, thinks she immediately regretted it (after having done it without his knowledge). Interestingly, as Maitlis pointed out in an interview with ABC News, the Panorama interview was done in secret, far from Buckingham or Kensington Palace. Andrew’s interview was done right smack “in the heart of the palace, of the royal establishment.”
Those interviews were just about infidelity, a big reputational problem for the future head of the Church of England, sure, but nothing in comparison to hanging around with a convicted sex offender and accusations of sexually abusing a minor. And while Charles absolutely walked right into a hole, his stumble has absolutely nothing on Saturday’s performance by Andrew. How could he possibly be so stupid? Or rather, how could the Palace allow him to be so stupid in public?
The decision makes more sense when you remember how the royal family works. First of all, Andrew, like the rest of them, has been told since birth in ways big and small that he’s special, that he’s above the rest of the world. Not as special as Charles, of course, but still a prince. And, too, members of the hereditary monarchy have been surrounded by courtiers from birth. Each of the various royals—not just Queen Elizabeth but also Charles, Andrew, Harry, William, and so forth—has their own small court, which is to say a staff of employees who advise and support them. Often these people are experienced professionals with modern PR skills, but structurally and historically, it’s a pretty easy way to find oneself surrounded by flunkies and yes-men. Somebody like Andrew isn’t prepared for this type of interview, because a little bit of media training can’t overcome the fact that he’s never been truly accountable to anybody—except, perhaps, his mother. That’s what it means to be a prince, a royal duke.
According to the Guardian, a man named Jason Stein who served as Andrew’s press advisor for two weeks counseled against the interview, before leaving the job “by mutual consent.” But apparently Andrew’s private secretary, a former financier with no background in media or PR named Amanda Thirsk, urged him to do the sit-down. Sources “with connections to the royal household,” told the Guardian that Thirsk totally believes that Andrew is innocent and thought that the public would believe him once he said his piece.
Instead, Andrew is now subject to a new and even heightened level of scrutiny. The British tabloids have pivoted from their focus on Meghan and Harry, splashing disbelieving, acid headlines across their front pages, and papers that don’t usually cover royal gossip led with the interview, too. The Evening Standard has already followed up with a report from columnist Rohan Silva, claiming that while he was serving as an aide to David Cameron, he had a meeting with the prince where he casually dropped the expression, “the n***** in the woodpile.” In the wake of the interview, corporate partners in Andrew’s tech venture, the Silicon Valley-sounding Pitch@Palace, have pulled out.
The big question, though, is what consequences would look like for Andrew. If he were a politician, he could be forced out of office; if he were a celebrity, people could simply stop buying whatever he was peddling. But the thing about monarchy is you can’t fire a prince. There’s no HR department with a binder full of procedures waiting to walk him through COBRA, and he already lost his special trade envoy job over this years ago.
There’s some precedent for containing a former royal. After the abdication, Edward VII and Wallis Simpson were essentially exiled—first to the continent, then to the Caribbean during World War II, and then on the continent again. Such an idea probably looks very appealing to Prince Charles right now, who already wants to streamline the group of “working royals” to focus on his own family and doesn’t get along very well with Andrew, anyway.
But so far, the Firm has kept him in the fold. In August, the Queen had him ride in her car on the way to church at Balmoral, a clear statement of support; Andrew was also included in the family’s Remembrance Day activities, sitting in the balcony for a performance at Royal Albert Hall with royals all around, next to Boris Johnson. Consequently, the scandal is threatening to boil over directly onto the Queen, whose image of dutiful stability is absolutely essential to the public perception of the monarchy. Kicking Andrew out of the photo ops would be a good start, at least.