At the end of the day, journalism is about pursuing the truth. In this respect, the BBC, which exists by virtue of a royal charter, has been quite remarkable. It has indeed been a shining example of a public broadcaster like it needing to operate in the public interest since it is funded by licence fees paid by every television owning premises in the United Kingdom. I refer of course to the coverage of the missteps of Prince Andrew, the second son and third child of the British monarch Queen Elizabeth II.
Last month, the network’s nightly current affairs show Newsnight conducted a robust inquisition of the prince in which he came a cropper. This week it aired an hour-long documentary on its flagship investigative programme Panorama, which carried an interview with an American woman Virginia Giuffre nee Roberts, who claimed she was trafficked to have sex with Andrew several times when she was under-age.
While serious questions remain, after the reported suicide of the New York-based financier and paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, perceptions about the United States’ criminal justice system’s ability to bring associates to book had diminished; and with it relatively news media interest in Andrew’s involvement in the matter. The prince’s ill-advised decision to be questioned by the BBC, though, catapulted the issue to centre stage. And Giuffre’s accusations have quite amply added fuel to the fire.
As the UK’s The Guardian put it: “Prince Andrew outed himself as such a lunk-headed idiot that the serious allegations against him retreated a little.” But it hastened to add the Panorama output was “a much-needed corrective”. In a powerful, well-prepared statement, Giuffre tearfully lamented at one point: “I couldn’t comprehend how the highest levels of the government and powerful people were allowing this to happen.” She went on to say: “Not only allowing it to happen but participating in it.” Admittedly, Andrew had asserted in his interface with the BBC: “I can absolutely, categorically tell you it never happened.”
There are noticeably some inconsistencies in Giuffre’s narration of events. But she adamantly underlined: “He knows what happened. I know what happened. There’s only one of us telling the truth. And I know that’s me.”
Giuffre said she was 17 and working at Donald Trump’s resort in Florida when she was recruited to work for Epstein at his nearby estate. She thought, she maintained, she was going to be trained as a “masseuse”, but on meeting Epstein and his friend Ghislaine Maxwell (daughter of the disgraced British newspaper owner Robert Maxwell who later took his life) immediately discovered the requirements were plain and simple sex. Why did she not walk out of the situation there and then? While the allegation of her having been abused as a minor might not disappear, she could also be charged with willingly complying with the sordid.
The UK’s Independent grimly commented: “Yet no one is above the law; members of the royal family do not enjoy immunity from the laws of this or any other land.”
Epstein is dead. But the women who were exploited by him and his friends – and Andrew was patently one of his friends – have emerged with lawyers to help them, and their cases are proceeding through American courts. Their grievances have been recorded. And the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is inquiring into the matter. However, Scotland Yard in London, after examining the complaint lodged with it by Giuffre, have not as yet detected merit to take any further steps.
Andrew told the BBC he was “willing to help any appropriate law enforcement agency with their investigations if required”. The keyword here is “appropriate”. This means he is unlikely to be enthusiastic about surrendering to the FBI. Meanwhile, his mother has stripped him of his “royal duties”, though not his financial allowance. The cynics surmise that in a year’s time the controversy will have faded from public memory, and Andrew will be reinstated to normalcy.
Andrew’s association with Epstein was by itself arguably a major indiscretion. But he has denied he ever saw, witnessed or suspected any behaviour on the part of the latter which led to his arrest and conviction. There’s a growing feeling in informed circles in Britain, though, that the prince cannot avoid at some point in the future being questioned by a law enforcement body on the affair. This would be unprecedented for the House of Windsor; and a bitter disappointment for Elizabeth, who has reigned for 67 years without practically putting a foot wrong.
Elizabeth believes she can only rule with the consent of the people. Her subjects expect the royal family to live up to high standards in order to deserve the privileges and the purse the state grants to them. The unfavourable spotlight on Andrew has at the very least, even if temporarily, been quite injurious to the institution of the British monarchy.
There is seemingly a photograph of Andrew and Giuffre with their arms around each other taken at Maxwell’s flat in London, with her, too, in it. Andrew suggested the picture is a fake and he had no recollection of posing for it. Giuffre said she has handed this over to the FBI for a forensic check. The FBI’s inference would, therefore, be interesting.
The judiciary in the US has obviously registered pleas. At the same time, it does not as yet testify to the truthfulness of contentions made. Their acceptance will only be determined after detailed arguments in which Maxwell – accused of hiring girls for Epstein - will conceivably be allowed to defend herself. Lawyers representing the women who have deposed as having been ill-treated have demanded Andrew “come clean”.
In Britain, as of now, it is still a trial by media, albeit in the court of public opinion it is not going swimmingly for Andrew. As the commentary on Panorama concluded: “The next time Prince Andrew tells his story it may be as a witness under oath.”