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Thursday 23 January 2020

Donal Lynch: 'From Prince Andrew to Maria Bailey... Comeback year for the car crash interview'

From Prince Andrew to Maria Bailey, interview implosions were a recurring theme this year, writes Donal Lynch

Prince Andrew's interview with Emily Maitlis (Mark Harrison/BBC)
Prince Andrew's interview with Emily Maitlis (Mark Harrison/BBC)
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

At the end of 2018, The New York Times declared that the celebrity interview was dead. The paper bemoaned the fact that stars like Taylor Swift and Beyonce only granted access to journalists under the most controlled and self-serving circumstances, with embattled media outlets feasting on the resultant crumbs.

A worrying trend had crept into print media of allowing stars simply to write their own interviews with themselves, it noted. Television interrogations had become cosy love-ins of the kind specialised in by American late night hosts. PR people exert too much control. Truly revealing interviews had become, the Times insisted "almost extinct".

Fast forward 12 months and the interview has made an unlikely comeback. From Prince Andrew to R Kelly, some of the most gripping media moments of the year have been car crash interviews where the subject's career seemed to implode live on the air.

Some were funny - Dakota Johnson's cringe-worthy sit-down with Ellen Degeneres made clear that car crashes can happen even on cosy American chat shows.

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Some were deadly serious - Andrew's interview prompted a debate about the future of the monarchy. But all were compulsive viewing.

The one to beat in an Irish context was without doubt Maria Bailey. In what would become a bit of a theme for the year's career-ending conversations, Bailey's interview took place at a moment when she was under severe pressure to speak out.

It had been reported in the Irish Independent that she had taken a civil case against the Dean Hotel after slipping from one of the swings at the entrance to the hotel's top floor restaurant, Sophie's.

In the context of the national debate about compensation culture this was highly damaging to her and to Fine Gael and when she strode into Sean O'Rourke's studio on that fateful May morning, she probably thought that she was going to gamely fight her corner and draw a line under the whole thing. The day before she took to the airwaves, she broke her silence on the debacle in The Sunday Independent with Liam Collins. It did not go well for her.

Things went from bad to worse on the Monday when Sean O'Rourke, assuming the persona of a befuddled detective, gave her enough rope to hang herself again and Bailey joined Pee Flynn and Joe Jacob in the Irish political interview Hall of Shame.

She had something in both hands when she fell, she admitted, and when challenged on how the whole thing looked, resorted to indignantly repeating the host's name as though he was the one who had gone too far. In the end she withdrew her action, but this was not enough to stop the story percolating all through the summer and culminating in her finally being de-selected by the party in her constituency.

As much as she had brought the opprobrium on herself, it was impossible not to feel just a little sorry for her.

It was not a good year for Fine Gael women.Verona Murphy seemed determined to give Maria Bailey a run for her money and went down in a blaze of verbal bullets.

The candidate in the Wexford by-election gave a number of interviews where she said Islamic State (Isis) was a big part of the immigrant population and that children as young as three may have been manipulated by the terror group.

She also said some asylum seekers may need to be "re-programmed" and that they carry angst. The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar initially defended her but in December she was dropped as a general election candidate.

She then doubled down on her comments on migrants and blasted Health Minister Simon Harris as "one of the worst ministers for health" ever. Murphy's rise and fall played out as swiftly as the life cycle of a fruit fly.

Given the survival of the resolutely tight-lipped Alan Farrell - another Fine Gael TD who was caught up in controversy surrounding a separate civil claim - the lesson from Bailey seemed to be that, when cornered, whatever you say, say nothing.

Nobody had impressed this upon R Kelly, however. The singer's tearfully impassioned denials that he had sexually abused women for two decades made headlines across the world in the spring and after he decided to sit down with Gayle King of CBN News, whatever was left of his reputation seemed to have been destroyed forever.

A still from the interview went viral. The image showed King seated and staring straight ahead while Kelly issued his jeremiad over her shoulder to the camera.

The picture seemed emblematic of Kelly's general attitude to women. He had laid waste to whatever was left of his career and by the end of the year he had pleaded not guilty to bribing an official to allow him to marry a 15-year-old girl. He continues to face four further sexual assault charges.

The writer Tanya Gold once described an interview as a seduction followed by a betrayal but in the case of Prince Andrew the betrayal was all his own. Reportedly he felt that his hour-long sit-down with the BBC's Emily Maitlis went "well" but the headlines that greeted him after it aired made clear that this had effectively killed the genre of royal interview; there will never be another one like it.

Faced with questions about why he had continued his friendship with disgraced (and now deceased) financier Jeffrey Epstein, Andrew prevaricated, dissembled and offered a series of excuses, none of which passed the smell test.

With implausible precision he could remember exactly where he was in 2001 on the date when Virginia Roberts, who accuses him of having sex with her when she was 17, claims she was with him.

He disputed her claim that he had sweated profusely as they danced at Tramp nightclub because he was unable to sweat after being shot at during the Falklands War, he said.

Andrew insisted he never gave people hugs in public but in nanoseconds the British press had unearthed dozens of photographs disproving this claim. He displayed no remorse, no self-awareness and at no point did he express concern for any of Epstein's victims. You have to be pretty bad at a job to be fired by your own mother but within days Andrew had, at the Queen's request, stepped back from his royal duties.

Fergie stood by him, of course, but nobody could decide if this was a blessing or a curse, and the scandal seems set to cast something of a pall over the upcoming wedding of Andrew's daughter, Princess Beatrice.

It seems unlikely that 2020 will offer up the same bounty of car crash interviews. Embattled politicians and celebrities will realise that silence is often the best policy and that no amount of media training helps when you are in the cross hairs of an Emily Maitlis or a Sean O'Rourke.

Blandness will reign again next year and a rubbernecking public will be the poorer for it.

Sunday Independent

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