Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian newspaper. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In 2006, Prince Andrew invited Jeffrey Epstein to the 18th birthday party of his daughter Beatrice. Andrew didn’t know, he claims, that an arrest warrant had been issued for Epstein earlier that year for sexual assault of a minor – because Epstein had never mentioned it to him. (Even though the British royal family have numerous staff who vet guests.)
It hadn’t been reported in the British press. How was a Prince to know?
That is just one of the excuses Prince Andrew offered the British people on Saturday night. In an extraordinary BBC TV interview recorded on Thursday, the Queen of England’s second-born son attempted to defend his relationship with the convicted sex abuser. Other excuses? “It would be a stretch” to say that he was ever “close friends” with Epstein, who was only the “plus one” of the British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell. (Maxwell has herself been cited in multiple lawsuits as a proactive accomplice to Epstein’s sexual offenses. She has previously denied all allegations against her related to Epstein.)
But Andrew was simultaneously such a good friend that it was a matter of honor to visit Epstein in New York, after his prison release in 2010, to break the friendship off in person. “I admit fully that my judgment was probably colored by my tendency to be too honorable,” said the prince.
He also acknowledged that Epstein “conducted himself in a manner unbecoming.” “Unbecoming?” responded Emily Maitlis, the BBC’s interviewer. “He was a sex offender.” “Yeah, I’m sorry, I’m being polite,” replied the honorable royal.
The prince’s lack of humanity or perspective as he answered the questions put to him was astonishing.
Even when invited to offer a closing statement, Andrew didn’t offer an expression of sympathy to Epstein’s victims. Throughout, he focused on the small stuff. He didn’t organize a birthday party for Maxwell at the royal residence of Sandringham, merely “a straightforward shooting weekend.” He didn’t attend a party to celebrate Epstein’s release, merely “a small dinner party, only eight or 10 of us.” He doesn’t regret his friendship with Epstein, because the man’s “extraordinary ability to bring people together” gave him wonderful networking opportunities. Where else might a prince pick up networking opportunities?
Andrew wouldn’t have noticed victims of people trafficking populating Epstein’s houses, because although “I don’t wish to appear grand,” he’s used to having “staff” around. He doesn’t recall meeting 17-year-old Virginia Roberts (now Giuffre) in London, who claimed she slept with Andrew under orders from Maxwell and Epstein, which he denies even though there’s an apparent photo of them with Andrew’s arm around her at Maxwell’s London home with Maxwell in the background. (“You can’t prove whether or not that photograph is faked or not,” said the prince.)
Andrew says Roberts is an unreliable witness, because she claims that Andrew “sweated profusely.” On the contrary, Andrew tells us, heroic military service in the Falklands War left him with a condition that limits his sweating. “So I’m afraid to say that there’s a medical condition that says that I didn’t do it.”
If you’ve got this far, then yes – this really is a litany of excuses made by a senior member of the British Royal Family on an authorized interview, reportedly given with the Queen’s permission, with the BBC. The interview is being uniformly reported as a PR disaster. For British viewers, the incident has already become a national joke.
But there are clearly bigger issues at play.
At the heart of this story are the experiences of a group of young, working-class women allegedly sexually exploited by a wealthy elite. At one particularly uncomfortable moment, Andrew told the BBC’s Maitlis that he’d remember any sex act, because “if you’re a man it is a positive act to have sex with somebody. You have to take some sort of positive action.” The implication was that he understands the female sexual experience as inherently passive – not a good sign under the circumstances.
But this isn’t like any other #MeToo story. Prince Andrew’s extraordinary decision to give this interview to the BBC has endangered the status of the constitutional linchpin of the British state: the British monarchy. It comes at a time when Brexit has already plunged the country into political crisis.
It’s always difficult for non-Brits to understand the peculiar role the royals play in the United Kingdom. In the popular imagination, the Queen herself is almost personally identified with the British nation. (Andrew was careful in his interview, as all royals are, to distance the Queen herself from his own mistakes.)
To criticize her is to criticize Britain. But the unearned privilege the royals enjoy is almost impossible to justify in an egalitarian age. Royalist constitutional theorists have always responded to this criticism by arguing that to be raised royal is to undergo a unique educational process that by definition instils virtue and duty in those who experience it. To help keep up this façade of Aristotelian virtue and noblesse oblige, the royals are usually careful never to let television cameras get too close to their real selves.
Prince Andrew’s decision to open up to the cameras this week blew that argument out of the water. He denied specific allegations that he slept with any women trafficked by Epstein. It is important to point out that the age of sexual consent in Britain is 16, whereas even if Andrew had slept with Roberts during Epstein’s trip to London, as she claims and he denies, she would have been 17.
But Andrew came across throughout the interview as a man who is used to being waited on by ever-present “staff”; who doesn’t ask questions about how his glamorous friends obtained their wealth or why they’re surrounded by underage girls; who is quicker to specify the exact status of a social occasion than to condemn a sex trafficker.
Not all the British royals, it turns out, are bred to be paragons of virtue. They are, if Andrew is anything to go by, entitled man-children, incapable of understanding consequences.
Even now, Andrew is unlikely to face any serious consequences for his behavior. The British police rarely press charges against royals. Not being democratically elected, or appointed on merit, Andrew can’t be voted out of office or sacked. He might be well advised to avoid traveling to America. But he will always be a prince of the United Kingdom.
Ironically, season three of “The Crown” launched on Netflix this weekend with a warning Prince Andrew would have done well to heed. The fourth episode of the season details a real occasion in the late 1960s when Prince Philip decided to expose the Royal Family to TV cameras, in the hope that a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the royal family might humanize them in the eyes of their British subjects. It was a disaster: the royal family came across as stuffy and over-formal.
But at least no one, on that occasion, spent time making excuses for hanging out with an alleged sex trafficker.
“The Crown“‘s fictional version of Prince Philip hopes that a documentary might show the British people that the Windsors are “perfectly normal people.” But as a Prime Minister Harold Wilson is left to remind the Queen, royals are not normal British people. Attempts by the Windsors to claim the common touch have always failed.
Perhaps the most out-of-touch moment in Prince Andrew’s interview came when he insisted he had an alibi for the night that Virginia Roberts claims to have been sexually trafficked to him after being introduced at a London nightclub.
At “four or five” in the afternoon he’d taken his daughter to a teenage party at “Pizza Express in Woking.” Pizza Express is a mid-chain restaurant known for being safe but unsophisticated. Woking is a commuter town outside London. (And for the record, it’s easy to get from Woking to London in the early evening in time to hit a nightclub.) If you’re American, imagine a prince citing as an alibi a visit to a Long Island Olive Garden, or a Jacksonville Applebee’s, or even (for the Californians) a Modesto branch of Chipotle.
Why did Prince Andrew remember that particular night so clearly, when he had a hazy memory of so many nights in luxury with Epstein? “Because going to Pizza Express in Woking is an unusual thing for me to do. A very unusual thing for me to do.” One could almost see the royal scion shaking at the memory.
That, more than anything, is how the British people will remember this interview. The question of how much Andrew knew about Epstein’s illegal activities may never be satisfactorily answered. But we have been re-introduced to a man for whom a chain-restaurant in a commuter town is a rare and memorable experience, but a trip to a private island owned by someone later convicted of sex crimes is thoroughly unremarkable. He was happy to invite Epstein to his daughter’s 18th birthday – but then again, Epstein only targeted the daughters of the poor.
British people were described as “British subjects,” not “British citizens,” until 1983. Deference to royalty is still deep in the national DNA.
In the closing moments of this BBC interview, the corporation’s star interviewer Maitlis said goodbye to him as a form dictates a commoner should speak to a Prince: “Your Royal Highness, thank you.” Whatever his culpability, whatever his poor judgment, Prince Andrew must always be thus addressed by his hereditary title, a mark of some supposed genetic superiority. That superiority is finally beginning to be questioned.