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The real BBC booker on how she convince Prince Andrew to go on record about Epstein

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The big get. In media lingo, that means the interview with the person at the center of a big story. Think Monica Lewinsky after her affair with then-President Clinton or the actor Alec Baldwin after the cinematographer was shot and killed on the set of his movie or Britain's Prince Andrew after his friend Jeffrey Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges. Now, interviews like these can entail months of negotiations, calls and emails and meetings to persuade that person to go on the record. That is what happened in 2019, when BBC journalist Emily Maitlis sat down with Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, at Buckingham Palace. Then-BBC "Newsnight" booker Sam McAlister had spent almost a year talking to Prince Andrew's private secretary and the prince himself. Her efforts and the resulting interview are dramatized in the new Netflix film "Scoop."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCOOP")

RUFUS SEWELL: (As Prince Andrew) I have a lot of people telling me that it's a mistake, me even being in this room.

BILLIE PIPER: (As Sam McAlister) And yet here you are. And I can promise you one thing. You can't turn it around by staying silent.

KELLY: That's the actress Billie Piper playing Sam McAlister. The real Sam McAlister joins us now. Hi there.

SAM MCALISTER: Hi there. It's very meta. I'm not sure who's real and who's Billie anymore, to be honest. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So your task was not only landing the interview, talking the palace, talking the prince into doing this but talking them into doing a serious news interview where they would not be able to vet or control the questions in any way. Walk us through the argument that persuaded them. What did you say?

MCALISTER: Well, there's a double argument, right? Here is a man who used to be effectively a national hero in the United Kingdom. He was, you know, the beloved son of the Queen, her favorite son by all accounts, a war hero. And now he was effectively a problem prince at best. And then, on the more pretentious level, of course, there was a view of Prince Andrew about him and his behaviors and the allegations against him, which, of course, he strenuously denies. But it was a double opportunity - a human opportunity to return to the life he had and a royal opportunity to basically restore his reputation in some ways. So I feel it was those two things that made this really a dream opportunity, at least on paper, for him.

KELLY: Was there a moment in the negotiations where you could tell, I got him? Like, that just landed. He's going to do it.

MCALISTER: There was a moment where I thought we might have him. The last negotiation is face to face with Prince Andrew...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCOOP")

SEWELL: (As Prince Andrew) Hello, everyone. I hope you don't mind. I brought someone along.

CHARITY WAKEFIELD: (As Princess Beatrice) Hello.

SEWELL: (As Prince Andrew) You know my daughter Beatrice.

MCALISTER: ...And a surprise guest, his daughter Princess Beatrice in Buckingham Palace. I mean, you can imagine how overwhelming that was. It was about two hours long. I felt we had a rapport. Emily, the presenter, was also there and Stuart McLean, who was the deputy editor. And at that moment of rapport, there's a moment of peril, and there's a moment of chance. And I said something quite bold. I told him the truth, which was always my style, that he was known as Randy Andy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCOOP")

PIPER: (As Sam McAlister) You know how people see you; don't you?

SEWELL: (As Prince Andrew) Why don't you spell it out?

PIPER: (As Sam McAlister) Randy Andy, Air Miles Andy. This is sex and girls and planes and private islands and money. And with respect, the public see these stories. And they think, yeah, I can believe that.

MCALISTER: And that moment is really where he's going to laugh. And he knows that we have integrity and trust and we're honest with him, or he's going to slam the door in our face. Now, luckily it was the former. But you never, ever know if someone's going to say yes until you get that final call.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCOOP")

PIPER: (As Sam McAlister) This isn't bad for your brand. This is your brand.

SEWELL: (As Prince Andrew) With respect (laughter). Well, you sort of got a point.

KELLY: So you get the yes. The interview is taking place. The prince's answers are sounding increasingly tone-deaf. Let me put it that way. And you can see the actors playing you and the prince's private secretary just keep shooting looks at each other. It is deeply uncomfortable. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCOOP")

GILLIAN ANDERSON: (As Emily Maitlis) She was very specific about that night. She described dancing with you and you profusely sweating.

SEWELL: (As Prince Andrew) There's a slight problem with the sweating because I have a peculiar condition, which is that I don't sweat. Or, rather, I didn't sweat at the time.

KELLY: Sam McAlister, take me to that room. Where are you, and what is going through your mind?

MCALISTER: Oh, my gosh. So I'm about 15 feet behind him. And I used to be a criminal lawyer, and I used to represent people accused of all kinds of things. And one of the great skills of that world is poker face. And thank goodness for poker face - 15 feet behind those incredible answers, trying not to show any emotion, trying not to communicate any panic or fear or consternation. And all I can see is the back of his head. So I saw the front of him for the first time when it went out a couple of days later. But it really was a masterclass in how to give terrible answers and, from my tiny perspective, a small, personal masterclass in showing no emotion whatsoever on your face for an hour - one of the longest hours in television history, I would say.

KELLY: I mean, was there a moment where you're thinking, oh, my God, this is just going completely off the rails?

MCALISTER: I think it was almost every moment. It was like building. And after the first answer, which was his mildest answer, every line was a news line.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCOOP")

ANDERSON: (As Emily Maitlis) But you were staying at the house of a convicted sex offender.

SEWELL: (As Prince Andrew) It was a convenient place to stay.

MCALISTER: Just watching them kind of pile on top of one another over and over.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCOOP")

SEWELL: (As Prince Andrew) I don't think there was anything wrong then. I don't remember meeting her at all. I do not remember a photograph being taken. Do I regret the fact that he's quite obviously conducted himself in a manner unbecoming?

ANDERSON: (As Emily Maitlis) Unbecoming? He was a sex offender.

SEWELL: (As Prince Andrew) Yes. I'm sorry. I was being polite. I mean...

MCALISTER: It was really journalistically, obviously, the highlight of my career and quite an extraordinary experience.

KELLY: Well, the fallout, the consequences from this interview were almost immediate. Just a few days afterward, Prince Andrew stepped back from royal duties. Did you have a sense, even as the interview was unfolding, like, this is going to have just extraordinary consequences?

MCALISTER: I knew it was huge. I'm not going to lie. I knew how consequential it was in theory. But the idea that it would topple a member of the royal family, effectively, you know, sacked by his own mother and we'd still be talking about it, let alone that I would have the opportunity of this incredible movie - it would have sounded like I was drunk if I'd said that to you. So I knew it was a scoop, but I just did not know it was the scoop of scoops.

KELLY: If you were still in that job, who's the big get you would be trying to get on the line today?

MCALISTER: Putin 100%. There's a different type of journalism that the BBC is lucky enough to do, which is without fear and without favor. And I think this film is an homage to that type of journalism and to the type of people that do that type of journalism. And, you know, I feel that if we had the opportunity to interview President Putin, he would be treated exactly the same as everyone that we interviewed - without fear and without favor. And that's rare, and that's why journalism is so important.

KELLY: Well, I will share. I just re-upped my interview request to President Putin this week, and I can assure you, President Putin and Kremlin colleagues, if you're listening, that you would indeed be treated with professionalism. And I completely, 100% agree with you. That's the big get. Sam McAlister, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

MCALISTER: The pleasure was mine. Take care.

KELLY: Sam McAlister. She persuaded Prince Andrew to go on the record in front of millions about his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Her work on that interview is the subject of the new Netflix drama "Scoop."

(SOUNDBITE OF LADY SONG, "GET READY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Karen Zamora
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.