Scoops review: behind the scenes of Prince Andrew’s car-crash Newsnight interview
Prince Andrew speaks to Emily Maitlis at Newsnight 2019
Without Sam McAlister, Pizza Express in Woking would not have become one of Britain's most famous restaurants. It was she who, as Newsnight producer, bagged the Prince Andrew interview with Emily Maitlis that culminates in her memoir about working on the show.
Though we know what happened, McAlister's eyewitness account of the royal car crash retains the power to shock - as each of the prince's responses to her authentic journalistic mix of horror, amazement and delight somehow does more harm than the last. (McAlister is convinced early on that his flat-out dismissal of Ghislaine Maxwell's alleged Sandringham birthday party as "a no-fuss shooting weekend" will be his rock bottom. But not for long.)
What happened before and after the interview also turns out to be quite striking. Andrew brought his daughter, Princess Beatrice, with him for the final negotiations on whether to speak publicly about allegations of sex with a 17-year-old girl. When the interview was over, a beaming groom called out to McAlister, "Wasn't he wonderful!" - a verdict the now "cheerful" man himself apparently agreed with.
The problem with Scoops, however, is that the Prince Andrew section only occupies the last quarter - and while the previous 200 pages have their moments, they're rather less engaging overall.
McAlister begins the story of her early life, which follows the well-established pattern of an "unconnected" misfit breaking through a world of privilege. Except that on closer inspection it doesn't quite hold up. In the context of one woman's brave rise against all odds, McAlister casually mentions her family's vacations in Monte Carlo and her tenure as a champion debator at Edinburgh University. When she gives up her first career as a lawyer, she approaches a friend who is 'luckily' working for Radio 4 and gets her an entry on the BBC.
She also doesn't seem unduly affected by an outsider's lack of confidence. Before long, she tells us, she had built a reputation on Newsnight as an unsurpassed guest booker, convincing interviewees to perform in a manner that "is still used in BBC training today." And while none of her anecdotes include the actual words, "Of course I had the last laugh," some come pretty close.
But as the title suggests, the bulk of Scoops is an anthology of her greatest hits — or, as she characteristically puts it, "samples of my many accomplishments." So each chapter focuses on a different interview, from their initial pursuit to the high point of what was said. Granted, none of these reach Prince Andrew heights, and one or two are unintended proof of how quickly news can fade from public memory. However, some pack a punch. Brigitte Höss, daughter of the Auschwitz commandant, maintains that her elderly father was "the nicest man in the world". Porn actress Stormy Daniels meticulously describes Donald Trump's penis, impressing the author by insisting her encounter with him was "definitely not a 'MeToo' moment". "It was rare to hear anyone dismiss the possibility of being a 'victim,'" McAlister writes with encouraging approval.
She is also preparing for the BBC, which she has since left. A Jeremy Paxman fan, she is dismayed when the big man is pushed aside by Newsnight editor Ian Katz in favor of Evan Davis' softer interviewing style and a more celebrity-based approach. (As Katz herself leaves, she admits she shed tears – but only with relief.) An old-fashioned supporter of BBC impartiality, she is horrified to find a Remainer colleague crying in the office the morning after the Brexit vote . "She was embarrassing," says McAlister. "Had I been the editor, I would have asked her to gather herself and come back when she could put on a professional demeanor." Worse, "the whole building felt like it was in mourning."
By the end of Scoops, there seems little doubt that McAlister's decision to voluntarily leave - partly because of a drop in impartiality - was a loss for the BBC. Nonetheless, her over-detailed and sometimes uncomfortably boastful account of why remains a decidedly sketchy read.
Scoops: Behind the scenes of the BBC's most shocking interviews is published by Oneworld for £16.99. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books
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