The new LBC podcast Hunting Ghislaine is described as “a fairy story which happens the wrong way around, of how a princess ends up becoming something of a monster herself . . . where no one at all ends up happily ever after.” It’s an overcooked introduction to an otherwise compelling and remarkably detailed podcast on Ghislaine Maxwell, the one-time girlfriend of the deceased and disgraced billionaire, Jeffrey Epstein.
The series is written and hosted by John Sweeney, the long-serving British reporter best known for his work on the BBC current affairs series Panorama. Many will recall him as the man who lost his temper and shouted at the Scientology representative Tommy Davies, for which he later apologised.
Epstein was arrested in July of last year on charges of trafficking young girls. He died in prison a month later; the cause of death, according to the authorities, was suicide. Epstein’s accusers have alleged that Maxwell played a central role in supplying him with victims — Sweeney calls her “a handmaiden to child abuse”. The title of the podcast doesn’t quite fit the story, since we know exactly where she is — in jail, having been arrested in New Hampshire on charges of trafficking minors. In fact, as Sweeney himself points out, the series is less interested in the “where” than the “why”.
To get to know the woman, we must know the father. Thus, the first episode, “Monsters”, focuses on Robert Maxwell, the media tycoon who died in 1991 in mysterious circumstances on his superyacht, which was called the Lady Ghislaine. Maxwell Sr was, by all accounts, a nightmare — not for nothing does the presenter compare him to Logan Roy, the fearsome patriarch in the TV series Succession. He reveals a man who bullied his children, fired employees on a whim and was known for urinating in public, including peeing off the roof of the Mirror’s office building in London, raining urine down on to the street — and on passers-by.
Here Sweeney sounds in his element: freed from the constraints of a national broadcaster, he delights in quoting the famous line from the Philip Larkin poem about mums and dads. After a clip from an archive interview on Desert Island Discs, in which Maxwell says he hopes he will have left the world a better place by being in it, Sweeney drily adds: “Let us be the judge of that, shall we?” In another clip the tycoon describes his newspaper group as one of the world’s “leading global publishers”, which Sweeney dismisses, pointing out that Maxwell’s empire was at the time close to financial collapse.
Sweeney’s tone may be sceptical, and his narration frequently colourful, but that’s not to suggest the podcast is anything but rigorous and authoritative. Much like The Sun King, David Dimbleby’s series about the Murdoch empire, Hunting Ghislaine makes for an illuminating and highly unsettling listen.