‘Baffling’ moment in Andrew’s Epstein interview
It was always going to be a tightrope to walk.
After years of headlines about Prince Andrew's friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein the royal agreed to sit down with the BBC's Newsnight program to finally answer questions about their relationship and to deny accusations that he had sex with then 17-year-old Virginia Giuffre Roberts.
Throughout the 49-minute exchange, the royal, dressed in a sombre suit and tie, looked largely relaxed as journalist Emily Maitlis grilled him about his time with Epstein and Giuffre's allegations.
It was an extraordinary interview on many fronts.
For one, after putting out a series of written statements this year about his friendship with Epstein, the very fact that the royal agreed to this interview, and such a lengthy one at that is surprising. (Also, the royal family has a poor track record when it comes to controversial TV interviews only making dicey situations worse.)
At times his face impassive, he parried Maitlis' questions with and appeared at times defensive and at others verging on the arrogant.
Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways was the lack of sympathy that Andrew expressed for Epstein's victims, and nowhere was that clearer than in one exchange, just seconds long, that told us everything we need to know about the royal's attitude to the entire situation.
It was towards the end of the interview when Andrew dropped a sentence that was truly mind-blowing: "Do I regret the fact that he has quite obviously conducted himself in a manner unbecoming? Yes."
"Unbecoming?" Maitlis shot back, seeming amazement and disbelief written on her features. "He was a sex offender."
It was over in moments but it said it all. That Andrew felt that Epstein's behaviour - a man who was facing sex trafficking charges and was a convicted sex offender - was simply "unbecoming" is extraordinary. To so drastically diminish the severity of Epstein's actions can only be read a serious mistake.
'NOT A CLOSE FRIEND'
The 59-year-old started by distancing himself from Epstein saying, "it would be a considerable stretch to say that he was a very, very close friend" before going on to try to argue that he spent time with the financier because it was good for him professionally: "So I wanted to know more about what was going on in the international business world and so that was another reason for going there. And the opportunities that I had to go to Wall Street and other places to learn while I was there were absolutely vital."
It's hard not to feel incredulous that the Prince's connection to Epstein provided anything "vital" given that from 2001 until 2011, he was the Special Representative for International Trade and Development on behalf of the UK government.
PLAYING THE IGNORANCE CARD
When queried about why Epstein was invited to Princess Beatrice's 18th birthday party, months after the investor had been charged for sexual assault of a minor, Andrew played the ignorance card.
"So he came to that party knowing police were investigating him," Matliss asked him.
"Well I'm not quite sure, was it police? I don't know, you see, this is the problem, I really don't know," Andrew said.
The HRH went on to say that he "ceased contact" with financier after he became aware that Epstein was facing charges and that it was only four years later in 2010 that he saw him again. That year, Andrew was infamously photographed with Epstein walking in New York's Central Park and at his $82 million mansion.
On why he flew to the US and to stay with the, by then, convicted sex offender, Andrew attempted to make the case that it would have been cowardly to end their friendship in a call, saying: "I had a number of people counsel me in both directions, either to go and see him or not to go and see him and I took the judgement call that because this was serious and I felt that doing it over the telephone was the chicken's way of doing it. I had to go and see him and talk to him."
Here's the thing: What was there to talk about? Epstein was on the sex offender register by that stage. Surely Andrew didn't need to tiptoe around Epstein's feelings.
Andrew was adamant his mother the Queen had played no part in his decision to end his association with Epstein: "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, that came from … so there were a number of people who … s o some people from my staff, some people from friends and family I was talking to and I took the decision that it was I had to show leadership and I had to go and see him and I had to tell him 'that's it.'"
"Show leadership?" This is just baffling. What about staying at the home of a person who has served time for sex offences demonstrates any of sort of "leadership"?
'CONVENIENT PLACE TO STAY'
Perhaps one of the most remarkable comments was his explanation of why he agreed to stay at Epstein's home during that infamous trip. Challenged by Matilis, the royal tried to justify his decision, saying "It was a convenient place to stay" before conceding trying to make himself out to be "honourable".
"At the time I felt it was the honourable and right thing to do and I admit fully that my judgment was probably coloured by my tendency to be too honourable but that's just the way it is.
"I could easily have gone and stayed somewhere else but sheer convenience of being able to get a hold of the man was … I mean he was in and out all over the place. So getting him in one place for a period of time to actually have a long enough conversation to say look, these are the reasons why I'm not going to … and that happened on the walk."
Firstly, quite what sort of lengthy conversation the royal needed to have with Esptein is unfathomable (How about "it's over"?) and secondly the notion that a senior member of the royal family needed to spend days with someone to ensure they had enough time for a chat doesn't really stand up to scrutiny.
He went on to deny claims that he had received a foot massage from a Russian girl during that visit and denied seeing young girls at Epstein's house: "I mean if there were then I wasn't a party to any of that. I never saw them. I mean you have to understand that his house, I described it more as almost as a railway station if you know what I mean in the sense that there were people coming in and out of that house all the time."
PIZZA PARTY ALIBI
Addressing claims made by Virginia Giuffre Roberts that the Prince had had sex with her in 2001 (when she was then 17-years-old), Andrew offered a very surprising alibi: a pizza party.
After saying he had "no recollection of ever meeting her", Andrew on to claim that on the night in question he had taken daughter Beatrice to a party at a Surrey outpost of restaurant chain Pizza Express before returning home.
When Maitlis continued to grill Andrew about Giuffre's claims he offered another peculiar defence and it involved the Falklands War and perspiration. He said that Giuffre's claims that he had sweated heavily during their alleged time together were incorrect because "I have a peculiar medical condition which is that I don't sweat … it was almost impossible for me to sweat."
When queried about the now infamous photo of himself with Giuffre with his arm around the teenager's waist he said "I'm at a loss to explain this particular photograph" and then said "I am not one to, as it were, hug and public displays of affection are not something that I do."
To which Twitter said, um …
Remarkably, at one stage he even briefly chortled in apparent incredulity when Maitlis mentioned Giuffre's adamant claims that she had had sex with the royal.
WAS THE INTERVIEW A FAILURE?
This was clearly an attempt to rehabilitate Andrew's tarnished image though quite how far it will go to achieving that is up for debate. It seems like a mistake that the Prince didn't opt for a more sympathetic, contrite tone and that his explanation for certain things (such as the pizza alibi and his 'I didn't sweat then but maybe can now' defence) are strange at the very least.
By and large he came across as slightly pompous. Consider this exchange.
Maitlis: Am I right in thinking you threw a birthday party for Epstein's girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell at Sandringham?
Prince Andrew: No, it was a shooting weekend.
Interviewer: A shooting weekend.
Prince Andrew: Just a straightforward, a straightforward shooting weekend.
Right, because nothing makes you seem more relatable than viewing a shooting weekend at one of the Queen's favourite homes as "straightforward".
The biggest issue here is why Andrew didn't take this opportunity to show sympathy to Epstein's many, many victims. He could have maintained that he knew nothing about Epstein's crimes and appeared compassionate simultaneously and not doing so seems like a huge missed opportunity. This simple move would have been seriously powerful and would have gone much further to countering months of bad PR than his bluster about straightforward shooting weekends and sweating.
The biggest takeaway from all of this is that Andrew clearly feels like he is a victim here too.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and freelance writer with 15 years' experience who has written for some of Australia's best print and digital media brands.