On the November morning in 2019 when Prince Andrew recorded his bombshell Newsnight interview, Sam McAlister was on a chair 15ft behind him in the south drawing room at Buckingham Palace. The interview was conducted by presenter Emily Maitlis, but it was McAlister who’d spent months negotiating the encounter and she sat there carefully noting the prince’s slightly too small chair and the nervous tapping of his left foot.

But as his revelations poured forth — that he was too honorable to disown his pedophile friend Jeffrey Epstein; that he couldn’t sweat due to his Falklands combat experience; that he couldn’t have had sex with his accuser, Virginia Giuffre, in 2001 because he was at Pizza Express in Woking and he couldn’t remember a “positive act” (sexual intercourse) — McAlister soon noticed something else. When she gets anxious, she says, she tends to get a bit flushed and sometimes gets a nervous click in her throat. Her heart was racing. There was the tick. And out of nowhere she felt a mad impulse to… stop him talking.

“Booker extraordinaire” Sam McAlister.

“My strong, strong feeling was that, if he was my client, I would have stopped it,” she recalls. “Seriously, if he were my prince I would have faked a fainting fit, pushed an emergency alarm button or pretended he had to answer an urgent call and rushed him out of the room. Unprofessional though that would have been, I can’t envisage not having stopped it. That has happened to me in other interviews. An agent puts their hand across the camera lens. Or they just start shouting. It’s rare but it happens. But full credit to them, they didn’t and that really is a miracle.”

Anyone who watched the Channel 4 documentary Andrew: The Problem Prince will know that after the recording, Andrew was jubilant. He thought he’d done well. But McAlister was beside herself. Catching the eye of the prince’s equerry, she asked her how she thought it went.

The equerry’s answer: “Wasn’t he wonderful!”

“There is something I call the royal delusion,” McAlister tells me. “Prince Andrew has lived for 63 years unfettered. People like you and me, we’ve had knockbacks, demotions and money worries. This is an individual who has had no such day-to-day concerns. The delusion is being told you’re amazing, incredible, brilliant, and he thought the interview would show that. He’s a very confident individual. Or was.”

“Seriously, if he were my prince I would have faked a fainting fit.”

When filming finished, the prince offered McAlister and others a tour of the palace, but she couldn’t bring herself to accept.

“I just thought, ‘Let’s get the tapes out. Run!’ ”

Sam McAlister is usually described as the “booker extraordinaire” for Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship current affairs show, but I don’t think that does her justice. A “booker” suggests someone making calls, sending emails, then perhaps making coffee while presenters such as Jeremy Paxman, Kirsty Wark or Emily Maitlis (McAlister worked with all of them) get on with the glamorous on-camera stuff.

“Sure, some bookers are light touch. They will fire off a request and if they don’t hear back, they move on. But I was relentless, sometimes a pain in the arse. I think my talent is listening and negotiating. But if I wanted someone, I would go all out.”

McAlister worked at Newsnight between 2008 and 2021. Sometimes she spent years persuading reluctant guests to come on. For example, she moved heaven and earth to get the world’s first TV interview with Brigitte Hoss, the daughter of Nazi war criminal and Auschwitz boss Rudolf. (Hoss recounted an idyllic childhood in the villa next door to the death camp, where 2,000 people an hour were being murdered.)

But getting the interviews was only a part of it. McAlister also took flak when things went wrong. Like the time the American actress Amy Schumer grumpily asked Emily Maitlis what type of sex she was having, and further scandalized the program’s high-brow audience by discussing masturbation. Ditto an encounter with the Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James during which “fisting” was mentioned three times, or the time the actor Steven Seagal walked out when Kirsty Wark raised accusations of sexual assault against him.

Of course, nothing illustrates McAlister’s talent for negotiation like her all-time prize booking. It took months of work to secure the Prince Andrew interview. But how did the single-mother daughter of an East End rabbit-hutch salesman with no royal connections persuade him to do it?

Well, there were endless meetings, obviously. At first the prince wanted a puff piece about his charity work, but McAlister said no.

“My feeling is that at the start of negotiations, Andrew felt forgotten. Harry and Meghan, William and Kate, the future King and the Queen were all big box office. At that stage he was very much the ‘spare’. I think he wanted to say, ‘I’m here too.’ At that point Jeffrey Epstein was not big in the news.”

That was May 2019, and when McAlister declined there was silence. But then in July Epstein was arrested and a few weeks later he was found dead in his New York prison cell. As the lurid allegations around him and his associates grew, Prince Andrew was looking vulnerable, so in October McAlister tried again. In her first face-to-face meeting with the prince, McAlister let rip. She told him he should do a no-holds-barred interview otherwise everyone would think he was guilty. She said most people, herself included, didn’t know much about him apart from he was called Randy Andy or Air Miles Andy.

“I know that calling him ‘Randy Andy’ was risky, crazy risky even, but I felt that we had built a rapport. His life was on the line; you could feel that. And counterintuitively I don’t think he wanted deference. There was a lot at stake and I think he was receptive to plain speaking from women.”

McAlister had stressed to the prince that Newsnight boasted a powerful female team (Esme Wren, who was editor at the time, Maitlis and McAlister, although current Newsnight editor Stewart Maclean was involved too) — was that what swung it?

McAlister herself makes the point that the prince was very close to the Queen. In fact, after the meeting in which the highly controversial interview agenda was agreed, he rushed off to have a cup of tea with “Mum”, presumably to tell her what he planned to do.

“I think he’s very comfortable in the company of women — and I know how odd that sounds given what he’s been accused of. But yes, I think he thought he’d get a fair hearing, but Emily is brilliant and relentless and he miscalculated how well he’d do. I think he thought he’d be able to explain himself and this very difficult situation would go away and he’d return to the life he had before this disastrous association with Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.”

The delusion is being told you’re amazing, incredible, brilliant, and he thought the interview would show that.

During the recording, from her vantage point behind the prince, McAlister couldn’t actually see his face. The earnestness. The utter conviction the world would listen and understand. When it was broadcast the following Saturday evening, McAlister was on the sofa with her boyfriend, Tom, a lawyer.

“When we picked our jaws off the floor, I think we responded on two levels. Journalistically, this was the scoop of the decade, but legally we both thought, ‘Holy shit, this is a treasure trove for a prosecution case.’ ”

McAlister and I are meeting in a hotel bar in London. It’s called Lyaness, which is somehow fitting. She is 5ft 11in, even taller in high-heeled boots and with a mane of golden ringlets. When she walked into the lobby, gum-chewing in skintight trousers, door-knocker Louis Vuitton earrings and sunglasses catching the light, guests lowered their maps and whispered to each other. You definitely expected there to be a tour bus.

“I am not discreet,” she says, smiling, but she is also warm and faultlessly polite.

“Thank you for your kindness and consideration,” she says to the waitress when she brings her a cup of coffee.

We are here to talk about Andrew: The Problem Prince but also Scoops, a book she has written about her career at Newsnight. The Andrew interview is a big part of it but there are also fascinating insights into how she negotiated interviews with the likes of Julian Assange and Stormy Daniels.

In her book McAlister comes across as gregarious, passionate but maybe with something to prove. “You’ve f***ing got this, Sam,” she says to herself heading to the palace for negotiations. She is a single mother to a 16-year-old boy and life has sometimes been a struggle. The book shows us McAlister trying to arrange interviews while sitting in the cinema with her son or dropping him at school early so she can get the early bus to Buckingham Palace. She missed meeting the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu so she could go to his sports day.

Maybe the “look” is a sort of self-affirmation? “There were times when we had very little money and, yes, I’d save hard for a bit of bling,” she says. “Actually, my book editor fought me over mentioning how much I love boots. She says I talk about them too much and I wouldn’t be taken seriously.”

That would be a mistake. McAlister trained as a criminal defense barrister before going into TV. The daughter of a salesman who made a fortune flogging sprats, rabbit hutches and caravans, McAlister grew up in tax havens such as Andorra and Guernsey before going to university. Oxbridge, she says, was “too snooty” so she applied for Edinburgh, where she thrived at the debating society. After graduating she went into law, but when the appeal of that faded she talked her way into work experience at the BBC.

“I grew up on market stalls so my skill is being able to talk to anyone — my view is no one is better than me and I’m no better than anyone else. But doing law you learn to listen carefully — often to the testimony of people who’ve done terrible things. Listening is a great skill and more unusual than you’d imagine. Add the gift of the gab, that’s my skill set.”

Her look, her confidence and varied life experience all make McAlister formidable. But none of that helped her in the immediate aftermath of the Prince Andrew broadcast. It made global headlines and within days the prince had been stripped of his titles and stepped back from public life. But McAlister didn’t celebrate. She was on the sofa in her home in West London with the curtains drawn. She didn’t eat. She didn’t wash. She just sat scrolling as the story exploded around her.

After the meeting in which the highly controversial interview agenda was agreed, he rushed off to have a cup of tea with “Mum.”

“I’m not embarrassed to say I was unsettled. Most interviews hang around a day or so and are then forgotten. But there were huge repercussions to this and you don’t know how people will react. When journalists come back from a war zone there’s a process, they decompress. But for the ‘topple the prince guys’, not really…”

McAlister has seen what can happen to people in a media storm. In 2014 she’d booked the Australian radio DJ Mel Greig as a guest on Newsnight. In 2012, Greig and another DJ made a hoax phone call to Kate Middleton while she was in a London hospital with severe morning sickness (she was pregnant with Prince George). They got through, spoke in silly voices pretending to be the Queen and Prince Philip and in the resulting furore the nurse who’d forwarded the call committed suicide. Greig subsequently received death threats, not to mention bullets in the post.

So in the wake of Prince Andrew’s interview, “I was in the newspapers for the first time and I’d seen what having a profile can mean — you’re open to attack. Like with Emily [Maitlis] and her stalker — that was an awful thing to go through. So I’m not embarrassed to say I was fearful and concerned for my career, my reputation and for myself, even if it wasn’t rational.”

But McAlister also thought about other possible casualties. She thought a lot about Princess Beatrice, who’d sat in the final negotiation taking notes.

“Listening to your dad discuss his relationship with a sex trafficker and pedophile? As a daughter that wouldn’t be my favorite day out and I felt for her.”

McAlister was also concerned for the prince’s private secretary, Amanda Thirsk, not least because Thirsk is also a single parent. They had bonded but Thirsk resigned as a result of the interview controversy.

“I wanted to call her and see if she was OK, but in such a febrile atmosphere, editorially that’s not advisable. But from a human point of view, I regret not calling her sooner. I don’t really do regret, but I regret that.”

Eventually, McAlister did make contact and they talked things over.

“We did meet and she was hugely magnanimous. I can’t say more,” she says.

McAlister also reached out to Martin Bashir, the journalist who both arranged and conducted the 1995 bombshell TV interview with the Princess of Wales.

“I wanted to swap notes with someone who’d been through a similar experience,” she explains. However, Bashir said he was “busy” and within 12 months the BBC had announced an investigation into the way he’d obtained his interview (Bashir was eventually found to have used “deceitful methods”).

“I’m pleased we never met up. It was a ghastly episode that shames the BBC,” says McAlister.

I think we can safely say that by now McAlister has learned how to handle fame. Here we are, enjoying coffee in a fancy hotel and Scoops is soon to be a Netflix drama (Billie Piper will play McAlister, Gillian Anderson will play Maitlis and Rufus Sewell is Prince Andrew). McAlister is the show’s executive producer and chuckles describing how she coached Billie Piper on how she chews gum.

“Not to put myself down, but I’m no one and they’re making a film with Billie Piper, one of the greatest actors in this country, playing me. It’s next-level surreal.”

All this is possible because McAlister left the BBC in 2021 after the corporation refused to give her a pay rise or a promotion.

“The BBC faces a lot of challenges regarding pay, promotion and who gets attention. Nevertheless I had envisaged there might be something, so yes that was disappointing,” she says.

But more than that there have been plenty of rumors she felt her role in negotiating the Andrew interview had also been diminished by colleagues. In June 2020, Maitlis and Esme Wren gave a joint Radio Times interview in which McAlister’s role wasn’t even mentioned.

“Listening to your dad discuss his relationship with a sex trafficker and pedophile?”

A subsequent report citing “friends” of McAlister said she was angry, seeing fit to mention that while Maitlis earned more than $400,000 a year, McAlister was on less than a tenth of that (admittedly she worked part-time).

Was she really angry?

“It was such a long time ago that, with respect, it seems so trivial. There are people with so many real problems in the world. No, it’s not something that bothered me.”

So a lack of recognition is not why you left the BBC and wrote your book?

“No. My motivation was more pretentious. I thought if Netflix ever makes a future edition of The Crown or a documentary on Prince Andrew, I want my role on the record. Even if three people read the book, I wanted to get it down.”

Has the book and TV deal made her rich?

“Why, do you want me to pay for your coffee? I didn’t think we discussed money in this country.”

I ask because the whole Andrew fiasco is now a goldmine. Maitlis left the BBC last year and is writing her own three-part drama about it (it will be made by Blueprint Pictures, the team behind the hit Jeremy Thorpe drama A Very British Scandal). Rival dramas — is there a race to get them out there?

“No, but it’s great there’s so much interest. Enjoy both is my advice.”

If the Maitlis drama reduces your role to a gum-chewing booker who’s on the phone to the palace for five seconds, will you be angry?

“No. Emily is fantastic, but of course her version will inevitably focus on her experience just as I have on mine. Emily is great. Esme is great. I have nothing but joy at another woman’s success and I’m sure they’ll be rooting for me too.”

I think McAlister would have made a good interviewer. She is funny and personable, but can quickly turn frostily analytical, listening and refuting or agreeing points very carefully. And though she says she is hugely grateful to the BBC for her career, in her book she is tough and clear-eyed about the culture there.

For example, in 2013 she painstakingly negotiated an exclusive interview with the former Methodist preacher and Co-op bank chairman Paul Flowers, who presided over huge losses and then became embroiled in a rent boy and methamphetamine scandal (he was dubbed the “crystal Methodist”). When it was broadcast in 2014, McAlister was “itching” for Jeremy Paxman to put the boot in, but felt he was too soft and averse to asking questions about sex (Paxman retired shortly afterwards). More widely, she thought some BBC execs were arrogant and extravagant (one spent more on taxis than McAlister earned in a year).

“I was almost psychotic about the license fee,” she says. “I’d walk everywhere if I could and if I caught the bus I wouldn’t claim it back, because I thought it was wrong to be excessive with public money,” she says.

McAlister also recalls entering the Newsnight office the morning after the Brexit vote. She saw a member of staff in tears and was furious.

“If I’d been editor I would have told them to pull themselves together. I’m from a generation that thinks impartiality, while almost impossible to achieve, is worth aiming for, but there is a younger generation who want to wear their opinions on their sleeve.”

Why didn’t she become a presenter or even an editor?

“Every time I was offered it I moved away from it — there’s obviously larger remuneration and a public profile as a presenter but, and I know this is unfashionable, I wanted to focus on my kid. I am fascinated by politics but: meet Netanyahu or go to my boy’s sports day? Sports day every time.”

When she left the BBC, McAlister was on the verge of landing an interview with the controversial Topshop boss Philip Green, whom she’d been chasing for years.

“Sir Philip Green saw the Andrew interview and sent me a message saying well done, but also how relieved he was he’d never said yes to me. I’d love to have got him, and also Putin. He [Putin] is one of those people where the disjunction between how they see themselves and how the rest of the world sees them is just extraordinary. That’s the job — explore the delusions of those in power.”

So what about Prince Andrew? As a direct result of the Newsnight interview disclosures, he paid a reported $12 million to Giuffre in an out of court settlement — the deal did not include any admission of guilt — and stepped back from public life. Yet the story rumbles on. In Andrew: The Problem Prince, Paul Tweed, a media lawyer who advised Andrew not to do the interview, suggests that his reputation may yet be rehabilitated. If that’s the case, McAlister is not convinced by efforts so far.

In January Ian Maxwell, the brother of Ghislaine, released a picture of two masked adults crammed into a bathtub in Belgravia, London. It was the same bathtub in which Giuffre claimed Andrew had sucked her toes prior to having sex. Maxwell claimed the photo showed the bath was “too small for any sort of sex frolicking”.

McAlister was scathing on social media. “Glad I never had to run this defense as a barrister,” she wrote. Why?

“I didn’t think it was a very compelling way to refute allegations. In fact, I think the stunt was a complete red herring. If he was my client, I wouldn’t suggest the bathtub photo defense.”

Walking to our meeting, I passed coronation preparations in full swing around Westminster Abbey. Crash barriers and flags were going up. A man on a stepladder was repainting the tips of the railings in gold. Pomp and circumstance. History in the making. But when we see Prince Andrew take his seat everyone will be thinking the same thing. He is much diminished, possibly broken.

McAlister had a hand in making that happen. How will she feel?

“I won’t watch it. I don’t really do state occasions. They’re not my bag. I only watch Netflix. But also, I didn’t make it happen. We provided the questions and he provided the answers. And let’s face it, they could have been better answers. Credible and plausible answers that might’ve changed his life for the better. But they weren’t. And he’s a big boy. Whatever the future holds, that’s on him.”

Michael Odell is a regular contributor to The Times of London