Prince Andrew can now tell you how not to rebuild trust

Insight

Prince Andrew can now tell you how not to rebuild trust

At this point it feels unoriginal to pile in with criticism of Prince Andrew’s extended BBC interview on the weekend. This was an attempt by the prince to put his long-standing connection to the serial abuser of young girls, Jeffrey Epstein, behind him. Remarkably, every commentator has been scathing about the outcome. And while their criticisms have been fair, the experience also brought a welcome reminder of how content can still matter more than form.

The game plan must have seemed obvious. Humans have forever believed in baring one’s soul and then moving on. In its modern form, public penance was defined by actor Hugh Grant admitting to Oprah he’d acted like a goat in soliciting a sex worker. The formula is to “draw a line under” the past: admit failing, show you are a good guy at heart and make everyone happy to forgive and forget.   

Prince Andrew, however, was never of a mind to say mea culpa. He seems to have seen his only fault as being too honorable. This is like a job applicant admitting to perfectionism. Perhaps he hoped the patina of royal mystique would hold one more time, or the journalist would be grateful for an audience in Buckingham Palace.

Prince Andrew’s mission was to restore trust. This involves more than crafting a soundbite and clinging to it for dear life. Going through the motions won’t do. Instead, you need to go to the heart of what’s on people's minds. Barack Obama did this brilliantly in an election campaign when he confronted the allegedly anti-white comments of his preacher. By contrast Prince Andrew didn’t appear to have let the Epstein unpleasantness bother him too much: abuse that damages young girls is not “unbecoming”. Nor does saying you stayed with a convicted abuser because it was convenient carry any credibility at all.  

You could take three lessons from an interview that has been aptly described as a car crash hitting a train wreck that piles into a tsunami.

First, you really do need to prepare. Amazingly, Andrew appears not to have done so, or perhaps was reluctant to allow advisors to test him on questions he’d have preferred not to address.

Second, tone is vital. Failing to even pretend you are sorry feels like adding to the insult.

But attending only to preparation and tone on their own would be cynical and not nearly enough.

As one commentator put it, if you are going to do an interview like this you need to answer all questions in a full and satisfactory way. Prince Andrew never got close. Maybe he really had not considered the issues - or maybe he feared being genuinely open could only make him look very much worse.