Prince Andrew, Jeffrey Epstein and Newsnight: anatomy of a PR disaster

The Duke of York’s plan to block speculation over his ties to a convicted child sex offender quickly came undone

The plan, it appeared, was fairly straightforward: get Prince Andrew in front of a camera and put a stop to speculation about the nature of his connections to the convicted child sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

So, how did it go from that to the Queen feeling she had no choice but to take the barely conceivable step of allowing one of her sons to step back from public duties altogether – in less than five days?

The Duke of York’s strategy had taken a hit even before he had sat down opposite the BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis. Andrew had already lost the services of Jason Stein, the spin doctor hired in September to restore his reputation. Stein had reportedly advised Andrew against the whole thing, preferring a longer-term strategy that included a great deal of charity work and interviews with print outlets to mark his birthday.

The unravelling of the strategy began almost immediately after the interview ended. Andrew appeared pleased with his performance, even giving the Newsnight team a tour of the palace afterwards. But when lines from the interview began reaching journalists’ inboxes early on Friday evening, they were astonished by what they read. By Saturday morning, the story was dominating the news agenda. The headlines were devastating for Andrew. And the interview had not yet even been aired.

The early press reports focused on his claim that his decision to maintain close relations with Epstein despite the financier’s conviction for sexual offences was motivated primarily by the prince’s “tendency to be too honourable”.

Kept back by the BBC was the prince’s claim that he could not have had sex with Virginia Giuffre, which she says she was coerced into doing while a teenager, because he was at home after a visit to Pizza Express in Woking. Nor was his contention that her description of his dancing with her beforehand could not be true because he was unable to sweat at the time.

Those revelations, when they came out, were met with incredulity and were shared widely online, adding fresh impetus to the story.

By Sunday evening, Andrew was facing calls to speak to the FBI from lawyers representing 10 of the Epstein’s victims. While some of the attention was focused on Andrew’s extraordinary defence, there was strong criticism of his attitude towards the victims and the fact that he had not expressed sympathy for them in the interview.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, said she could not understand “how somebody could be talking about their relationship with [Epstein] without recognising, or understanding, or discussing, how he felt about those victims. And I felt they should have been much more at the centre of that discussion.”

The backlash continued into this week as numerous organisations began to cut ties with the prince. On Monday, it emerged that the accountancy giant KPMG would not be renewing its sponsorship of Andrew’s entrepreneurial scheme, Pitch@Palace.

That night a fresh Epstein accuser gave a press conference in Los Angeles where she detailed allegations that the financier assaulted her when she was 15 and urged Andrew to come forward to the authorities with whatever information he had about his former friend.

On Tuesday, Standard Chartered also pulled out of Pitch@Palace as questions about Andrew’s continued involvement in the scheme he founded in 2014 continued to circulate. They prompted a whole host of other firms to review their involvement or cut ties altogether.

Wednesday morning brought no respite, as it emerged that three Australian universities had severed their links with the business-mentoring charity’s Australian branch. On top of that, the telecoms firm BT said it would not work with Andrew’s digital training scheme while he was a patron.

Later that same day a letter emerged casting serious doubt on Andrew’s claim in the BBC interview to have first met Epstein in 1999. The letter – written to the Times in 2011 to counter reports that the prince had been a friend of Saif Gaddafi, son of the former Libyan dictator – had come from his own former chief of staff, who said that the prince had met Epstein in “the early 1990s”.

At first, Buckingham Palace sought to defend Andrew over the apparent discrepancy. “The duke’s words in the interview speak for themselves,” said a spokesperson.

By Wednesday afternoon, the palace sought to bring the issue to a close with Andrew’s announcement that he would be stepping back from public duties and was “willing to help any appropriate law enforcement agency” with their Epstein investigations if required.

Contributor

Kevin Rawlinson

The GuardianTramp

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