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July 22, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:10am

Ex-Newsnight producer Sam McAlister on booking Prince Andrew and BBC’s ‘fatal’ class problem

By Andrew Kersley

Producer Sam McAlister convinced Prince Andrew to agree to his headline-making Newsnight interview by telling him people already assumed he was “guilty”.

In an interview with Press Gazette, she also revealed that she felt the BBC had a “fatal problem” with representing normal people and those with different perspectives, saying the organisation faced a “double threat” to its future from both hostile politicians and from itself.

Asked how she convinced Prince Andrew to be interviewed by Emily Maitlis for Newsnight in 2019, McAlister (pictured) said the royal was like “a bomb waiting to go off” and that he wanted to defend himself over allegations in relation to his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Andrew has recently paid millions to settle a civil sexual assault case with his accuser Virginia Giuffre, who he claimed he never met. He has always denied all the allegations against him.

McAlister said: “He wanted to do something. He was in an invidious situation of his own making, but… he wanted to vindicate himself, like most interviewees. Everybody thinks they are going to give a good interview.”

She added: “And the arguments that I made largely alone, to begin with, and then in the company of Emily… was you cannot be silent. If you’re silent, everybody assumes you’re guilty nowadays.”

[Read more: Newsnight declined earlier Prince Andrew interview over Epstein ‘red lines’, Emily Maitlis reveals]

The aftermath of the interview in part led to Andrew being forced to step away from his royal duties. Maitlis won Interviewer of the Year for the programme at the British Journalism Awards 2020, with judges calling it “the outstanding interview of the year” and “a global, agenda-setting scoop”.

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McAlister also shared some mixed emotions about her former employer, the BBC, from which she took voluntary redundancy last year. She had been producing interviews at Newsnight for ten years.

“I don’t want to be that cliche of someone who leaves an organisation that’s been very good to them, that’s offered so many amazing opportunities for which I’m hugely grateful, and criticises it,” she said.

“The thing I found hardest actually was machinations of my own organisation, that you could basically have to spend hundreds of hours getting your work on to air in an organisation that does news.”

She added: “I could spend days or weeks arguing and fighting with my own organisation to get things on air that were a complete no-brainer. What a waste of time.”

She went on: “I think the best one I had is Dennis Rodman. Globally famous sportsman comes back from North Korea where he has had a private audience with the great leader. And I have the first interview available to the BBC, in Vatican City no less.

“And I had to decline that interview. And it’s the only time I left the building angry.”

She warned that problems at the BBC were now seeing staff “leaving in droves”, not just senior presenters like Emily Maitlis or Jon Sopel who both joined Global, but less prominent or famous reporters and producers as well.

In the year to 31 March, 2,905 BBC staffers left (including 1,536 who like McAlister took voluntary redundancy) – 300 more than the number that joined. However these figures cover the BBC as a whole rather than just BBC News.

Lack of BBC working class representation is ‘fatal’

McAlister went on to argue that the BBC had failed to represent working-class people.

Some 16% of BBC news and current affairs staff are classed as coming from a working-class or low socio-economic background, compared to 21% across the entire BBC. An NCTJ report this year found 80% of UK journalists come from professional and upper class backgrounds compared to 42% of the general workforce.

“I think [the lack of working-class representation] is a fatal problem,” she said. “I think it’s fatal as the BBC in particular has a duty to represent the nation as a whole, even the parts of the nation that don’t watch it,” McAlister said.

She added: “Ultimately, the relationship that you have with the country depends upon your understanding of the country.

“And if you fill your newsrooms with people who basically just mix with one another, and get their news and their understanding of the world through other people who agree with them on Twitter, you’re creating a very dangerous chasm.”

She went on: “So I do think there’s a double threat. I think there’s a threat from outside that’s not helped by a threat from inside.”

McAlister has talked in the past about her parents being East London market traders but told Press Gazette she does not consider herself working class as they made enough money to become “tax exiles” during her early life.

‘I was an experience billionaire’

Since leaving the BBC in July 2021, McAlister has written and published a book, Scoops, on the experience of booking guests like Prince Andrew for Newsnight. It was announced last week the book is set to be adapted into a film.

The production, set to be written by Your Honor screenwriter Peter Moffat, came about almost by accident, McAlister explained, after she received a Twitter message from someone planning to research a series on the Prince Andrew interview who did not know she was in the midst of writing her book.

McAlister was speaking to Press Gazette ahead of an event on Monday lunchtime for which she will speak about how to negotiate and handle big-name interviews. All UK press card holders can attend for free.

She told Press Gazette that the key to being a good interview booker starts with being “very good at rejection”.

“You’re reading about where things went right but for every one guest there’s going to be 999 nos,” she said. “I think you also have to be very intuitive… creating that connection with a prospective interviewee is crucial.”

She added: “And I always say that negotiation is like a pregnancy. And then you actually give birth to the baby to try and get it onto the air, when it can often fall apart.”

Out of big-name interviews including Elon Musk, Justin Trudeau, Prince Andrew and Amy Schumer, McAlister said her strangest interview experience was being one of the “handfuls” of journalists to go inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London where Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was holed up for nearly seven years.

She added: “The bit before the camera starts is nine times out of ten the most interesting part of the experience… I always said I was an experience billionaire. You get to have conversations with people that they would never want to be made public, and so I won’t. But these moments that nobody else gets to experience, that is the producer’s joy.”

Picture: Sam McAlister

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