Who Is The Real Sam McAlister? The Producer Billie Piper Plays In Scoop

Newsnight's real-life 'booker extraordinaire' helped secure the 2019 Prince Andrew interview.

Sam McAlister on the set of Scoop

by Isobel Lewis |
Published on

We all remember Prince Andrew’s 2019 Newsnight showdown with Emily Maitlis. The lengthy TV interview, which saw ferocious presenter Emily quiz the Duke of York about his friendship with the late paedophile and financier Jeffrey Epstein months after he died from suicide in jail. But not everyone knows Sam McAlister, the woman who played a pivotal role in the making of the interview.

Sam McAlister, a BBC TV producer responsible for booking Newsnight’s guests, was the fearless journalist and 'unsung hero' who helped make the interview happen. Unsurprisingly, it took a lot of work, but with Sam’s determination she helped create that special one-on-one interview, titled Prince Andrew & the Epstein Scandal.

Sam would go on to pen a book about the interview titled Scoops - which was then picked by Netflix to be adapted into a film by Peter Moffat titled Scoop, now streaming on the platform. Starring Gillian Anderson as Emily and Rufus Sewell as Andrew, Scoop cast Billie Piper as the spirited Sam. In Scoop, Sam is shown clashing with her fellow colleagues on the BBC news programme, who struggle with her no-nonsense way of talking and negotiation tactics, declaring her 'very Daily Mail'.

Billie Piper and Sam McAlister on the set of Scoop
Billie Piper and the real-life Sam McAlister on the set of Scoop ©Netflix

In an interview with Grazia, Billie described the important role Sam played in negotiations for the interview. ‘Maitlis obviously did a phenomenal job, but it was Sam who was hustling, ping-ponging between those two huge institutions, the BBC and Buckingham Palace,’ she said.

Here’s everything you need to know about the real Sam McAlister…

Who does Billie Piper play in Scoop?

Former teen pop star turned actor Billie Piper is best known to most for playing Rose Tyler in Doctor Who, and her subsequent starring roles in Secret Diary of a Call Girl and I Hate Suzie. In Scoop, she plays Newsnight producer Samantha 'Sam' McAlister.

Who is the real Sam McAlister?

Born into a single parent family, Sam was the first person in her family to go to university when she went off to the University of Edinburgh. She later trained as a criminal barrister. Sam landed her first journalism job as a reporter for BBC Radio 4, before moving across internally to Newsnight in 2008. She is also a single mother with a teenage son.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 03: Sam McAlister attends a New York Screening of Netflix Film Scoop at NeueHouse Madison Square on April 03, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Netflix) ©Getty

Sam worked on Newsnight as a producer, but she was unofficially known as the show’s ‘booker extraordinaire’. Sam previously told The Times that she could be ‘relentless’ and ‘a pain the arse’ when it came to securing an interview. ‘If I wanted someone, I would go all out,’ she said.

And it worked – Sam secured a number of Newsnight’s biggest interviews during her tenure, including with Bill Clinton and Elon Musk.

How true to real life is Scoop?

While Scoop does open with a disclaimer explaining that parts of the show have been fictionalised, the show is based on Sam's account of the interview, as told in her 2022 book Scoops.

Speaking about the film's recreation of that fateful Prince Andrew interview, Sam praised the show's attention to detail. 'The level of detail, putting together exactly the same room, the camera angles, the lighting, the specifics of the table, the cables, the types of cameras, the carpet — everything is so ridiculously close,' she said.

What was Sam McAlister's reputation at the BBC?

Despite her success in securing big name interviews for the BBC, Sam wasn't always the most popular figure at Newsnight. In Scoop, she's shown butting heads with her fellow staffers, who take issue with her work style.

Sam told The Guardian, 'I was unusual at the BBC. The thing that people say about me when they meet me is: "You’re not very BBC."... My book was nonfiction, but there are elements of my personality that Billie needed to know in order to play me as a human being. The film uses a kind of shorthand to explain the experiences of someone with a different kind of background to lots of the other people at the BBC.'

How did Sam McAlister convince Prince Andrew to do the interview?

Watching Scoop one key question stays on our minds: how on Earth did she convince Prince Andrew to do this car-crash interview in the first place? It might be hard to believe, but initially it was Buckingham Palace who wanted Andrew to appear on the show. Sam received an email opportunity to interview the Prince for his charitable initiative Pitch@Palace.

Sam said no, viewing it as a ‘puff piece’, but kept up a line of communication with Andrew’s private secretary Amanda Thirsk (played in Scoop by Keeley Hawes), and the pair met in person in May 2019. The idea of an interview was floated once again, but Amanda said that any questions about Epstein would have to be off the table.

Rufus Sewell and Gillian Anderson in Netflix's Scoop
The infamous interview, as portrayed in Scoop ©Netflix

However, after Epstein’s death by suicide that summer, Sam received another call back to the palace, and took Emily maitlis with her. In a follow-up meeting, attended by not only Prince Andrew, but his daughter Princess Beatrice too, the details were laid out and the interview was confirmed the next day.

In a previous interview, Sam described Prince Andrew as ‘a bomb waiting to go off’, saying he had wanted to defend himself over his friendship with Epstein. Sam even allegedly told the Prince that he was known as ‘Randy Andy’ and ‘Air Miles Andy’ to the public.

‘He wanted to do something,’ she told the Press Gazette in 2022. ‘He was in an invidious situation of his own making, but he wanted to vindicate himself, like most interviewees. Everybody thinks they are going to give a good interview.

She continued, ‘The arguments that I made largely alone, to begin with, and then in the company of Emily, was you cannot be silent. If you’re silent, everybody assumes you’re guilty nowadays.’

Does Sam McAlister still work at Newsnight?

Despite her role in locking in one of the most memorable TV interview of all time, Sam left the BBC in 2021 after ‘risking it all’ and taking voluntary redundancy.

‘I don’t want to be that cliché of someone who leaves an organisation that’s been very good to them, that’s offered so many amazing opportunities for which I’m hugely grateful, and criticises it,’ she said. ‘The thing I found hardest actually was machinations of my own organisation, that you could basically have to spend hundreds of hours getting your work on to air in an organisation that does news.’

What does Sam McAlister do for work now?

Since leaving the BBC, Sam released her book Scoops – on which Netflix’s drama is based – in 2022. Writing for Tatler, Sam implied that her literary ambitions had played a role in her exit from the BBC. ‘Everywhere I went, people told me, “Write a book!”’ she wrote. ‘I had hoped, like many correspondents and presenters, I could write it while staying at the BBC, but it was made clear that that wasn’t an option.’

Sam now works as a professional speaker and teaches negotiation, while also working as a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ prestigious law school.

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