Prince Andrew’s attempt to clear his name over abuse allegations spectacularly backfired this weekend, engulfing the Queen’s son in a royal sex-and-propriety scandal unmatched since the 1990s.
Packed with bizarre alibis and halfhearted expressions of regret, the Duke of York’s encounter with the BBC’s Newsnight programme on Saturday has unleashed a wave of excoriating press coverage, amplifying doubts over his conduct.
The result is a far cry from the aim of the Queen’s second son, who wanted to put to rest the “gnawing” questions over Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier and paedophile who allegedly coerced a teenager to have sex with the Duke. The accuser Virginia Giuffre, who was 17 at the time, has pointedly said: “he knows what he has done”. Prince Andrew has said of the alleged incident: “It didn’t happen. I can absolutely categorically tell you it never happened.”
Rather than earning the right to move on, the Duke’s responses to Emily Maitlis’ forensic questions have made it one of the royal family’s most misjudged forays on television, eclipsing even the interviews given by Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, on the collapse of their marriage.
“This is almost as bad as it gets,” said one veteran adviser to the royal family, noting the allegations were “a far more serious matter” than mere adultery. “This was one of the worst interviews I have ever seen of any public figure in any form.”
Dickie Arbiter, a former Buckingham Palace spokesman, said the interview was “excruciating”. “My guess is that he bulldozed his way in and decided he was going to do it himself without any advice,” he told the BBC. “Any sensible-thinking person in the PR business would have thrown their hands up in horror.”
The Duke acknowledged “letting the side down” by continuing to fraternise with Epstein in 2010, inviting him to events and enjoying his hospitality even after the financier had served prison time for sex offences with an underage girl.
But to the surprise and alarm of the Palace, even with hindsight the Duke still defended his decision to befriend Epstein, pleaded complete ignorance of his “strange and unpleasant activities”, and offered little sympathy to his victims.
Claiming to have “no recollection” of meeting Ms Giuffre, the Duke cast doubt over the authenticity over a picture showing his arm around her bare midriff and challenged her account of events, citing widely mocked factual details.
These included dining with his daughter at a PizzaExpress in Woking, Surrey, on the day he allegedly had sex with the teenager — an alibi he recalls “weirdly distinctly” because high-street dining was “very unusual” for him.
Ms Giuffre’s memory of him profusely sweating when nightclub dancing was also dismissed as impossible because the Duke had “a peculiar medical condition”. “I didn’t sweat at the time because I had suffered what I would describe as an overdose of adrenalin in the Falkland’s War when I was shot at,” he said.
The Fleet Street response was devastating, with headlines such as “Not one single word of remorse” (the Mail on Sunday), “No sweat . . . no regret” (the Sunday Mirror), and “I didn’t have sex with a teen, I was at home after a pizza party” (the Observer).
Penny Junor, an author who is one of the most prominent chroniclers of the royal family, described the interview as “a huge mistake”.
“These women have been abused and trafficked, handed from one wealthy man to another,” she said. “They were children. Andrew did not address that at all . . . it beggars belief.”
Ms Junor expected the damage to the wider royal family to be limited, since the Duke was always “a bit of an add-on”, who was prone to lapses of judgment. But the hit to the Duke’s public standing and charitable works could be more serious. “How valuable is his patronage now?” asked Ms Junor.
Separately the former Palace aide expressed doubt about sponsors wanting to work with the Duke’s initiatives, which include digital enterprise and entrepreneurship awards.
Most alarming of all for the Duke may be the risk of being caught up in the legal fallout from the Epstein affair, as US authorities continue investigations and civil suits work through the courts. The Duke said he may be willing to testify or help with investigations “if push came to shove”.