Spare a thought for Prince Andrew – and, indeed, a brain cell. As his landmark Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis showed, the Queen’s second son really is sensationally thick, even by the standards of a family internationally famed for their dimbulbery, certainly since the time of George I. If the Falklands war hadn’t robbed Andrew of the ability to sweat, now would definitely be the moment to break out a bead or two.
Instead, I see the Duke of York is once again “bewildered”, following the US arrest of his close friend Ghislaine Maxwell, charged with the sex trafficking of underage girls. HRH is “bewildered” that this dramatic event has led to yet another podium shout-out from US prosecutors, who insist again that they want to interview him about his close friend Jeffrey Epstein and the latter’s crimes (don’t call it a “lifestyle”). “We would like to have the benefit of his statement,” one US attorney said pointedly on Thursday. The previous occupant of her post had claimed Andrew was refusing to help – and yet, according to Andrew’s lawyers, he has been in touch with US authorities twice in the past month, and their failure to respond has apparently led to the latest bout of bewilderment.
Which version is the most strictly accurate? US attorneys have a reputation for publicity-seeking, so it really could be either party being economic with their interpretation of the truth. There would be a certain poetic justice if it were Prince Andrew who is now being used for something or other. Oh dear. One finds oneself karma’s bitch.
If it helps the duke get his head around that potential scenario: he is being used because he has come to be perceived as weak and powerless. He is viewed as a somewhat worthless figure who would nonetheless be quite the adornment to events. He is being toyed with, gaslit and goaded, and this really is a no-win situation for him. People’s default position on the things he says is disbelief. His desperate assertions are dismissed as lies, the fact that he would make them branded a joke. He is an object of ridicule, scorn and social disdain. Even his mother clearly believed he should go away quietly.
On the plus side, the duke isn’t feeling one thousandth of what it felt like to be one of the many teenage girls and young women who would also feel all those things, as they were drawn into Epstein’s web of rape and abuse, then spat out and threatened into miserable, permanently damaged silence. On the other hand, Andrew is certainly feeling SOMETHING that is never going to go away.
He may yet feel something more concrete than that, given that Ghislaine Maxwell will now be strongly encouraged toward total candour. Cast your mind back to Andrew’s impolitic reflections on his longtime friend in the Newsnight interview. Asked about Maxwell, he said: “If there are questions that Ghislaine has to answer, that is her problem, I’m afraid.” (Very brave, sire. Was there even a single line in the entire 592-car pile-up in which he didn’t make a number of situations worse for himself? The deep vulnerabilities the interview opened up are still revealing themselves to us like a slowly unfurling lotus blossom.)
Still, if only the prince’s bewilderment – and that of many others – had kicked in rather earlier. Part of me wonders whether something like the Vietnam war had robbed HRH of the ability to feel bewildered during his friendship with Epstein. Otherwise he might have felt bewildered as to why his middle-aged friend was so often surrounded by teenage girls. He might have felt it bewildering to go to Ghislaine Maxwell’s house, reportedly after a visit to Tramp nightclub, and pass the rest of the evening with two other people in their 40s and a 17-year-old girl. Unless he knew exactly what was going on, that situation should have bewildered the shit out of him. (I should mention that Prince Andrew is bewildered by anyone who fails to accept he wasn’t there that night, but at Pizza Express in Woking.)
This, alas, is why it’s so hard to believe all the frightful bollocks about “not knowing” being spouted by so many rich and powerful former friends of Epstein. One of the most telling admissions in Filthy Rich, the Epstein documentary currently showing on Netflix, comes from the former telephone engineer on Epstein’s private island. “You tell yourself that you didn’t know for sure and you never really saw anything, but that’s all just rationalisation. Jeffrey Epstein, he was a guy who concealed his deviance very well – but he didn’t conceal it that well.”
Well, quite. There are many cases of huge and systematic abuse where we still pander to the people who turned a blind eye to it, by saying that it was “a sophisticated operation”. Epstein’s operation was certainly expensive. But was it sophisticated? How sophisticated is it really when your private Caribbean property is known locally as “Paedophile Island”?
It was much the same with Michael Jackson, whose child abuse operation is again always described as “sophisticated”. And yet, was it? The guy installed a massive fairground outside his creepy house, told people he slept with kids in his bed, and was dogged for decades by lawsuits from children – always boys, always around the same age, always alleging the same patterns of behaviour. Expensive, yes, but not sophisticated. Didn’t need to be.
One of Jackson’s former advisers once claimed to have said to him: “Michael, you’re going to wind up in a lot of trouble. Why don’t you stop all this stuff with the young boys?” Jackson’s deathless reply was: “I don’t want to.” For me, that is the absolute definitive Michael Jackson line. “I don’t want to.” You can hear it now, in that unmistakeable singsong voice, suffused with an absolute indifference to anything other than personal gratification, and the absolute conviction that one way or another you’re going to get away with it. Which proved to be the case. Why don’t you stop sexually abusing children? “I don’t want to.”
In the case of Jackson and Epstein’s servants, the silence about the “lifestyle issues” of their employer is unforgivable, yet easily explained. They depended on the men for their income. But in the case of the many, many rich people who turned a blind eye to Epstein’s grotesque predilections, there really is not even the slightest scintilla of a warped excuse. They knew enough to know. Donald Trump, of course, was the only one stupid enough to say it out loud, laughing in an interview that his friend Epstein’s girls were “on the younger side”. But please don’t suggest Bill Clinton, an extremely clever man, was too stupid to make basic assumptions, or that even Prince Andrew couldn’t have glommed on once Epstein had been convicted of procuring an underage girl for prostitution. Those are just the presidents and the prince; there are countless others besides. Perhaps Ghislaine Maxwell will fill in some of the blanks behind their blankness.
For now, you might think the truly bewildering thing is that so many people didn’t say anything. You might think it’s absolutely bewildering that these intelligent, privileged, financially cosseted individuals never confronted Epstein about something even they must have felt iffy calling a “lifestyle”. And yet, it isn’t bewildering. There is, of course, a perfectly simple reason why they never did the right thing. They didn’t want to.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist