Exclusive Interview

NMP Live Meets Sam McAlister

Former barrister turned BAFTA-nominated TV producer Sam McAlister spent a decade negotiating, securing and producing interviews with some of the world's most high-profile personalities for BBC Newsnight.

In 2019, one of those interviews hit global headlines when it placed a member of the Royal Family at the centre of a criminal investigation.

In our exclusive interview, we learn about the art of negotiation, the importance of building relationships in business and we get a behind-the-scenes look at the now-infamous Prince Andrew interview.

Watch the full interview here or read the transcript below.

In conversation with Sam McAlister

I started off as a criminal defence barrister. So, in the cells with alleged, she uses the term advisedly, rapists or usually shoplifters, but I'm trying to impress you. So, let's go with rapists and murderers. And then I segued into working at Radio 4, where I worked at More or Less and Law in Action as a correspondent and producer.

And then latterly, I ended up working at Newsnight. So, I was the second-in-command on the interviews desk for Jeremy Paxman and then for Emily Maitlis. So, negotiating interviews with everyone from Justin Trudeau via Amy Schumer to Prince Andrew, which is probably the thing for which I'm best known.

Can you talk through some of the guests you booked for Newsnight?

Working on Newsnight was amazing because you'd get to speak with everybody, from, sadly, someone who'd just been through a terrible personal tragedy who was a member of the public, so maybe their child had been murdered or something horrific of that nature, through to celebrities like Trevor Noah, and then a little chat with Joseph Stiglitz, who's an award-winning, Nobel Prize-winning economist.

So, over the years, I would say the most interesting people I dealt with would necessarily not always be the famous ones, but you were an experience billionaire. So, everyone from Julian Assange inside that tiny embassy, one of the few people who got to be inside there, Vivienne Westwood one day, Pamela Anderson the next day, Sam McAlister the third day. 

What motivates guests to appear on Newsnight?

I suppose there would be three motivations.

Motivation one will often be the fact that they have something to sell: a book, a product, themselves. Awkward, she says, as she's just brought out a book. The second reason would be that they've got a story to sell. So, they could be a world leader with a policy that they want to announce, or they have something controversial and they want a huge platform to communicate that.

And then there's probably a third factor that I would call the sweet spot factor, and that's where I would come in, identifying what that sweet spot is that would get them over the line from doing something which theoretically could be against their best interests, and coming into the fold and doing it.

That could be a matter of ego, it could be a matter of contentment and feeling that they're safe with somebody they're negotiating with, it could be that they understand they have a responsibility, an accountability, that they need to show their face and give a credible answer for something that they've done or a way that they've behaved. But the human level, that sweet spot would come from researching somebody, understanding them, and working out what would motivate them to say yes, because no one wants to come on these kinds of programs.

So you have to find a way to convince them to do something that could be counterproductive, or could be an incredible opportunity to showcase their ideas, themselves, their content, their capabilities at best. Or, at worst, could be Prince Andrew.

How do you manage interviewees' expectations?

One of the things that's really interesting and challenging about being an interviews producer, as I was, is absolutely the line between what the expectation of the interviewee is, and possibly their representative, and what your expectation is as a news broadcaster.

So, at Newsnight, and generally at the BBC, we don't accept any red lines. That is to say conditions, specifics, where you would say, "Tell us the questions." Lots of people say, "Do you give the questions?" God no. Or they try and do a little bit of argy-bargy with you. Try and say, "Could you make sure you ask about this? Could you ask about that?"

In truth, often you'd be doing something where there was a product, that could be a geopolitical product, where they want to talk about something to do with the economics of the French economy. That's why they're there, they're the French economic minister, so he or she would be allowed to do that to start with. Or similarly, if they had a book to sell, or a play that they're starring in, and they want to talk about that initially. But the balance in the job that I did was making sure that they understood that we would also ask what I would call news-related questions, a wonderful catch-all for everything else, the cornucopia of things that a news journalist and the viewer is interested in hearing about.

Because the question I would always ask myself was, if I was sitting at home and I watched this person, would I be annoyed at Newsnight because they miss something so obvious and so important to me, that I think that that was a soft interview, or an interview that wasn't done with rigor, or fairness, or properly.

So, that was always in my mind. And sometimes, perhaps that wouldn't be communicated to the interviewee, either through a misunderstanding or that their representative didn't understand what we were about. But that's how it works. If you're going to turn up for a news interview that's live on television, you need to be accountable for anything and everything. So, expect the unexpected.

Have you ever made mistakes when negotiating interviews?

Absolutely. The whole process of negotiation is stumbling, messing up, and failing.

Now, you only see, whether you read the book or you watch Newsnight or you watch television news, the successes. I can tell you, for every success, there's been 999 failures. So, you're used to rejection. You have a thick skin. Most of the time it isn't personal, because they've chosen another outlet or another place, because they have more viewers, say for example, or a particular presenter that they wanted to speak to, or they have a longer relationship with somebody that they're working with there. Sometimes it is down to you. You do mess up. All the best of us mess up and we make mistakes.

So, I'd say over the time that I was at Newsnight, that ten-year period, I learnt to not lead with myself, and I learnt to lead with the person I was negotiating with.

And that means you have a toolbox, in terms of who you are as an individual. There's intellect, there's banter, there's humour, there's amusement, there's background, there's empathy, whatever it is, you have so many things to choose from, and it's very tempting to go in with all of them. But the skill is to take your lead from the person you're negotiating with, and to bring out the things in your toolbox that work best.

So, by the time I was negotiating with Buckingham Palace and Amanda Thirsk, effectively the chief of staff of Prince Andrew, I knew to lead with intellect. I knew not to lead with humour, I knew not to end her sentences or do witty little remarks, which used to be what I did at the beginning.

I learnt not to win. That sounds counterintuitive, but when you're negotiating initially, you're looking for a win. You want to close the deal. Learning not to close the deal, not looking for the win is the biggest skill set that I learnt in that period. And it meant I didn't stumble at the end, where at the beginning, I stumbled over and over again.

How did you secure an exclusive interview with a member of the Royal Family?

I still don't really believe it happened. Even though I was 15 feet behind Prince Andrew in Buckingham Palace, and it's almost three years ago, I still can't really believe that that happened, it was that surreal.

I think the reason we ended up with that interview was because we didn't have any relationship with the Royal Family. They'd never done a Newsnight interview, to my knowledge. And it was kind of my job to have my finger in lots of pies. So, I'd be trying to start new relationships with embassies, or CEOs of major companies, working with banks.

In that particular instance, it all started with a very innocent email from a PR agency that I had done some work with before on something else, offering what we call a puff piece, which is an opportunity to film with someone famous or celebrated, but it's like an advert. They want to talk about X, Y, and Z and nothing else. And we don't do that.

So, I rejected the opportunity to do this piece talking about how amazing Prince Andrew was and I signed off with the sign off that I would sign off on the 999 rejections that I was used to, which was if things change and he's open to a more wide-ranging news interview, do get back in touch.

Well, miracle, they actually did. Never happened before. Probably will never happen again. And I heard from them next in the May of 2019, and I was invited to go to Buckingham Palace. You don't turn that down. Didn't even tell my editor, because I thought it was basically such a road to nowhere.

And at this stage, Prince Andrew was not in that much trouble. He had had this bad association with Jeffrey Epstein, he'd had the poor association with Ms. Maxwell, but both were not incarcerated, Epstein was alive, Maxwell was still at large. It wasn't a dead issue, but it wasn't the thing that you would think about most if you spoke to him or dealt with him.

And so, back to Buckingham Palace I went, traipsed across the front yard, went to meet Amanda Thirsk, the chief of staff, spent a couple of hours with her. And at the beginning of that conversation, of course, I had assumed that we were able to talk about anything, but as soon as you arrive, you find out you'd been completely misled, it's something completely different.

And so over that two or three hours, I laid the foundation of the relationship, which in the future would mean that that interview came to fruition.

But on that particular day, she did proffer a red line that we couldn't ask about Epstein, although it wasn't a big issue at that stage. We don't accept red lines. So, rightly, my editor turned the interview down. But we had that foundation of trust, I stayed in touch. An impossible dream, right? Having a member of the royal family when he's not in trouble.

Then we get Epstein arrested. Epstein dead. Maxwell at large. Are they going to arrest her? Virginia Roberts. What a heroic young woman, bringing all of the litigation that she was bringing. Calls for Andrew to deal with the FBI. Calls for him to appear in court. It ratchets up day after day after day. And with each ratcheting up, you would assume it was less likely that the man would do an interview, particularly with Emily Maitlis, woman of her calibre, on Newsnight. But actually, I could feel it was getting closer and closer. And eventually, Amanda agreed to meet us again in the October, myself and Emily, and then face-to-face with Prince Andrew in November in Buckingham Palace, just four days before the interview was recorded.

On the Monday, we met with him; on the Tuesday, they agreed. Longest 48 hours of my life. On the Thursday we did the interview. And on the Saturday, you guys saw it.

An impossible dream brought to fruition over many, many, many months, built on a foundation of trust, and built on a foundation that he was somebody who had something to say and he wanted to say it somewhere, and we just wanted to make sure it was with us.

What was it like watching the Prince Andrew interview unfold?

It was the most extraordinary experience, sitting there behind him. I'd been at the Palace on the Monday with Emily and the deputy editor, Stewart. That was the final negotiation face-to-face, as close to him as I am to you. And in that particular negotiation, it's not remiss of me to say, because Emily has already said so and it's in the public domain, and also in my book, we were told things that you saw on camera five days later, six days later.

So, we heard for the first time, in that tiny room, the so-called alibi about Pizza Express in Woking, and my legal training was really helpful for that, because I'm used to poker face. We heard, for the first time, the conversation around sweat, or lack thereof. That close.

Now, what usually happens is you have what we would call the briefing call as a producer. In this case, it was a face-to-face negotiation, unusual. But you then go to your presenter and you say, "Oh, by the way, they've just told me these 10 amazing things." You turn the camera on, they clam up. Nothing makes it onto air.

This was exceptional, because the things that he said to us in that negotiation, face-to-face, you would never for one second think would make it to air. When the camera started rolling, I started hearing the words that I'd heard in that final negotiation. And the journalist in me knew that we had struck gold.

This was the jackpot, journalistically. And the ex-barrister in me knew that he had struck the opposite, because he was lining himself up for a world of pain, in terms of litigation, previous inconsistent statements, the possibility of appearing in a dock at some case, an actual court, rather than the court of public opinion, which is what we were offering him.

So, the experience sitting there behind him was really something mind-blowing. And with each answer, hearing what I'd already heard on camera, for the country and the world to see, it became clear within minutes that we had a national scoop. It became clear within more minutes that we had a national scandal. And by the end of it, we all knew we had a global scoop of huge proportions that the entire world would be talking about, and indeed still are.

Why is it important to take a human approach in business?

I think one of the things that's actually been good in the post-COVID environment is that the formality with which we dealt with one another professionally has fallen away a little bit. I think it used to be the case that the assumption was that if you were warm, or tried to make a connection with somebody, or ask them questions about their home life, or if they're okay, something like that, how was their week? That somehow that was not professional.

And I think that softer skill of being able to connect with people and being humane is more valued now. And that was definitely the backbone of my career. In my career, I would be looking to make a connection with you, and that would be a real connection because I don't do fake. I wish I could. I wish I could be a sycophant, I wish I could be disingenuous, it would've been hugely helpful to me, as a journalist and as a lawyer. It's not my skill set.

But the thing it has allowed me to do is to create genuine connections with person after person after person. And that skill set is something that used to be kind of frowned upon sometimes, even in my profession, but it lasts a lifetime.

So, getting someone's name right, sending a thank you afterwards, turning up on time for them, asking them to get back in touch if there was any feedback, asking them if they have concerns or worries about something that you're doing, making it clear that things are off the record, making sure you don't shaft them, dealing with them with respect, never telling a lie, confessing if there's a problem that they've brought to you that you can't help with, and never just going for the deal over your own integrity.

Simple things on a human level that actually are the backbone of lots of business dealings. If you lie once, it's all over. If you overpromise and under deliver, it's all over.

So, those are the kinds of lessons that I think in this situation now, whatever you're doing, whether you're in business, you're running a huge company, or you're dealing with individuals one-on-one in a corner shop, creating those relationships are what creates loyalty to a brand, loyalty to you, and make people want to work with you, and deal with you, and trust you.

And trust with a consumer, whatever that consumer is, whether they're buying your product or watching your product or coming to visit your product, trust is everything. And that comes from empathy, that comes from humanity, and that comes from hard, decent work. And those are things that are laudable, and that I feel proud that I've been able to achieve in my career.

In addition to your time at Newsnight, what other topics do you speak on?

I love talking about negotiation, obviously, it's something I've done all through my career. I find it really interesting.

I've also spoken about geopolitical issues, so news trends that are coming up. So, the kinds of things you might be thinking about as a business to be covering or thinking of. I've spoken also about how to deal with the media. Now, we've taken the example of an interview where you're going to be on global television. Now, that's exciting and thrilling to deal with and to give people advice on.

But in truth, most of us are dealing indirectly with the media all the time and not really thinking about it. We all have public profiles. So, speaking about some of the common missteps that you might accidentally make, because you're not thinking about your LinkedIn profile, or a conversation that you're having with someone at a dinner and ends up on Twitter.

Those kinds of common mistakes, I think, are something that are really useful to have conversations about. So I talk about that. I also talk about things like resilience, and kindness, and how to deal with those kinds of issues in a corporate environment. People are often looking for new ways to challenge themselves and their corporation, to change the way that they do things. And I think one of the other things is communicating in a way that avoids you being someone like Prince Andrew, even to the nth degree.

So, learning how to communicate in a way that's proper and meaningful and has effect.

I also talk about women's issues. So, obviously I'm a big feminist, and I love to talk about women's international days or women's days, talking about my background. I don't come from a traditional background, brought up a kid on my own, worked part-time. So, those kinds of challenges in the workplace, of dealing with those kinds of issues.

So, anything from geopolitical to personal political, from Cosmo to Camus, as my mum would say. That's the kind of thing I'm interested in. I just really love talking about some of the experiences that I've had, some of the insights that I've got from them, and of course, some of the anecdotes we can't say on camera right now, but I can say in a private room.


If you're interested in booking Sam McAlister you can enquire online, email us, or pick up the phone and speak to one of our booking agents.


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