Mad about Martha; Flirty, Funny and Fiercely Clever, Newsnight's Martha Kearney Has Succeeded Where Many Women Fail. Molly Watson Talks Mugabe, Major and Makeup with One of the BBC's Most Talented Journalists
Byline: MOLLY WATSON
Martha Kearney, I keep having to remind myself, is one of the grownups. An Oxford classicist who cut her teeth on programmes such as Panorama and A Week in Politics before becoming the award-winning political editor of Newsnight, she's an intellectual heavyweight and one of the country's most respected broadcast journalists.
I should be quaking in my fluffy, not-muchcopat-shorthand feature writer's shoes at the thought of interviewing her to mark Newsnight's 25th birthday (she's been with the programme for ten years). If it were either of her colleagues Jeremy Paxman or Kirsty Wark sitting opposite me, I'd be seriously nervous. So why do I feel as though I'm hanging out with the naughtiest girl in school?
For starters, despite being in her mid-forties, Kearney's unlined pale skin and twinkling blue eyes make her look as though she could still be a hot contender for the middle school netball team at Edinburgh's George Watson Ladies' College where she was educated.
She also describes her working week - doing Newsnight Monday to Thursday with a relative letup on Fridays when she presents Woman's Hour on Radio 4 - in such a self-effacingly comic way that she sounds more Marmalade Atkins than Martha Kearney, doyenne of the Beeb's flagship news analysis programme.
'I wake up to the Today programme and have normally read all the papers by the time I talk to my editors at 8.30am,' she says. 'Then I hit the office by 10.30am.' Kearney doesn't have any children so what, I wonder, has she done in the intervening couple of hours? Gone to the gym? Penned another chapter of a novel?
'No way!' she laughs. 'I don't do any of that superwoman stuff. I sometimes mean to go swimming and I've recently bought a pedometer to try and make myself walk some of the way to the office but I'm usually running far too late for that.' Kearney is not always stuck at the office. Both the House of Lords and the Commons have a Members' Lobby where MPs can talk to journalists off the record and this is where she is often to be found, collecting what she calls 'political intelligence'.
'You can normally only talk to ministers on the phone but the Members' Lobby is a good place to assess the mood and see what's going on,' she says.
'It is odd to accost strangers and ask them what they think about something, but often someone you hadn't thought of will say something useful. On the day of the bill to introduce identity cards (December 20), lots of Tories told me that they had Christmas shopping to do, which really meant that they were planning to abstain [from voting].'
Lunch may be for wimps on Wall Street but in Westminster it's a tradition that can yield political commentators their juiciest titbits. 'Dining with politicians is very good fun,' Kearney admits. 'There are lots of them that I like. John Major is quite flirtatious and much more engaging personally than he ever seems in public.' While claiming to have been ignorant of Major's affair with Edwina Currie, I've a suspicion that Kearney knows most of the secrets of the Westminster rumourmill. Infuriatingly, she's saying nothing.
From noon onwards, Kearney's day gradually builds to a crescendo of panic at 10.29pm when she is more often than not still editing her piece with less than a minute to go until she must appear live on air.
'Getting six good minutes of television takes hours,' she says. 'People have to be coaxed to appear on the show because it is taken seriously and watched by political activists and MPs as well as the public. Kenneth Clarke always used to say he'd only come on if he'd done badly in other interviews early in the day. You also work in the knowledge that something can happen at 6pm and you'll be starting from scratch on a new lead story.
'I always end up going right down to the wire on editingpieces. It's 10.29 and 30 seconds and people are shouting, "Is it ready? …