It was six months in the making and was intended to “create a new narrative” around Prince Andrew’s friendship with the convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
Following years of scrutiny over his links to the billionaire financier, the Duke of York conceded for the first time that his behaviour had “not been something that was becoming of a member of the royal family”.
But after a 45-minute questioning by Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis, in which the Queen Elizabeth’s second son admitted he had “let the side down”, will his very public “mea culpa” help to repair his tarnished reputation?
Clearly this defensive strike was carried out in an effort to insulate the 59-year-old Duke against further disclosures, with the civil case against Epstein’s estate still ongoing in the US.
Although there is no suggestion the Duke will face new allegations, Buckingham Palace aides have long feared that, despite their repeated denials of any impropriety, the saga has done irreparable damage to the Duke’s public image. Some were even worried he might lose patronages as a result. The question now is will Newsnight prove a help or hindrance?
The move to project the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Catherine) to the forefront of major royal events as the next Prince and Princess of Wales is likely to push the Duke of York and his daughters Princess Beatrice and Eugenie further into the background.
It is perhaps worth noting that when members of the British royal family have given television interviews, it has only served to fan the flames of negative publicity.
From the Prince of Wales Charles’ outpouring to Jonathan Dimbleby, to the late Diana, Princess of Wales’ “three of us in this marriage” comment to Panorama’s Martin Bashir, the royal family on camera tend to be clipped into convenient sound bites, with the original context of the conversation often lost.
Even now, the Duke and Duchess of Sussexes’ recent interview with ITV’s Tom Bradby is only remembered for the remarks Prince Harry made about being on a “different path” to his brother William and Meghan Markle’s claim that “not many people have asked if I’m OK”.
Eyebrows were raised when a series of stories appeared in the papers suggesting that an image of Prince Andrew with Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who has accused him of having sex with her “three times, including one orgy” when she was 17, had been doctored and when royal sources suggested that the Duke had only visited Epstein in New York after he was released from prison in 2011 to break off the friendship.
There was also a story about the Duke “squaring up” to one of the Queen’s aides, which prompted such a rigorous leak inquiry at the Palace that the police were involved.
But despite the Duke’s insistence that he had no memory of even meeting Giuffre — and her claims against him being ruled “immaterial and impertinent” by a judge in 2015, her assertion in a US television interview that “He knows what he’s done” proved impossible to ignore. Yet when suggestions that the Duke could not have been in the picture because he has “chubbier fingers” failed to convince the public, the Palace was left with little option but to address the claims head on.
According to one source close to Prince Andrew, he had felt “paralysed by not being able to get his point across” because the issue “turns over every day in his head”. As the Duke himself admitted to Maitlis: “I stayed with him and that’s the bit that, as it were, I kick myself for on a daily basis.”
The source added: “The hope is that people who write pieces after this will change the narrative a bit. If this can be a line in the sand and he can go back to doing his work then it will have been worth it.”
Yet will he now go back to being judged on royal initiatives like his Pitch@Palace scheme for young entrepreneurs?
While regret has clearly been expressed in the interview, the public may regard the Duke’s admission to “letting the side down” as somewhat of an understatement. Like all apologies by members of the Firm, the sorrow often appears to be expressed for the situation they find themselves in — rather than their own culpability.
Many will be left scratching their heads over Prince Andrew’s amnesia over meeting Giuffre, when Epstein’s former pilot has alleged that he flew at least three times in 2001 with the teenager and the financier and claims to have the flight logs to prove it.
And while the Queen may have granted her approval for the prime-time interview, other family members will naturally worry that the Duke has set an unhelpful precedent for breaking with the 93-year-old monarch’s famous mantra to “never complain or explain”.
While admittedly he is not the first member of the royal family to do so — and probably won’t be the last — the move is likely to put further strain on his already fragile relationship with the Prince of Wales. When Prince Charles becomes king, the heir to the throne favours a slimline monarchy with only the major players taking centre stage on the Buckingham Palace balcony.
The move to project the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Catherine) to the forefront of major royal events as the next Prince and Princess of Wales is likely to push the Duke of York (Prince Andrew) and his daughters Princess Beatrice and Eugenie further into the background.
Harry and Meghan's PR struggles
The hullabaloo surrounding Epstein will only serve to confirm the Prince of Wales’ fears that the public will have no truck with minor “hangers on” once the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh (Prince Philip) are no longer around. While she is still alive, the sovereign remains the Duke of York’s most vocal advocate within the royal family but once she is gone, Prince Andrew will cut a very isolated figure.
The Queen has also indulged Sarah, Duchess of York, the Duke’s ex-wife, by inviting her to Balmoral every year (in the Duke of Edinburgh’s absence). It is hard to imagine the Prince of Wales continuing this tradition.
With Prince Harry and Meghan Markle already proving somewhat of a challenge in PR terms, Prince Charles will be mindful of steadying the ship — which may inevitably result in his brother, a former naval officer, being removed from the top deck altogether.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Camilla Tominey is an award-winning British journalist and broadcaster