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Why Martha Kearney's just a Suffolk girl at heart

PUBLISHED: 10:00 11 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:08 20 February 2013

In the more familiar surroundings of the studio

In the more familiar surroundings of the studio

She's one of our most high profile political interviewers and a keen traveller. But when she's not working, there's nothing Martha Kearney likes better than coming home to Suffolk to tend her garden and her bees, as she tells Eileen Wise

She's one of our most high profile political interviewers and a keen traveller. But when she's not working, there's nothing Martha Kearney likes better than coming home to Suffolk to tend her garden and her bees, as she tells Eileen Wise

Martha Kearney has interviewed some of the most important political leaders of recent times Tony Blair, John Major, Bill and Hilary Clinton and Gordon Brown to name but a few. But after such high-powered encounters, the presenter of BBC Radio 4s World at One programme and BBC Newsnights Arts Review likes nothing better than hunkering down in her cosy cottage not far from Diss.
I like what my mother describes as the big skies; it gives me a great feeling of release and freedom. You go out and see a sunset that panorama. I like the way there are pretty villages but not too perfect or chocolate boxy, not like the Cotswolds. It feels grounded, it feels like its own place.
Martha and her husband Chris Shaw moved to the county to be near her parents who settled in Bury St Edmunds 20 years ago. Martha and Chris met when they were both students at Oxford and have been together ever since, getting married nine years ago in Diss.
Martha and her two younger brothers were born in Dublin. My father taught at University College Dublin my mother was one of his students so they got married there. We lived there until I was four and then my father got a job at the University of Sussex, so we moved to England. Later in her career when she worked for the political programme On the Record and as political editor on BBC Twos Newsnight, she spent a lot of time working in both Belfast and Dublin.
I go back to Ireland from time to time, most recently for my aunt and uncles golden wedding, but I used to go back and forth for work. I dont holiday there much as Im a bit more of a sun person. Once we had a month long holiday in Kerry and it rained every single day! I recently went on holiday with my father looking at standing stones, scrambling through damp hedges! You know that after a while one standing stone really does look like the last one!
So where does she go for the sunshine? This year we went to Pelion on a lovely peninsula in northern Greece, a romantic setting, very mountainous in Greek mythology its where the centaurs came from. We did a lot of walking on 18th century cobbled mule tracks which take you up and down these incredible wooded gorges.
In Suffolk, Chris and Martha are pretty active too and most weekends they like nothing better than going on long walks and cycle rides. There are a lot of lovely walks near us. We go to the coast quite a bit, both in Suffolk and north Norfolk. I really like going round the local farmers markets, buying nice bread. We also do a lot of reading and I like to be near my fire.
Shes a keen gardener so spends time weeding the vegetable patch. But one of her great loves is keeping bees. When we got married nine years ago some friends clubbed together and bought us a beehive, and I thought how on earth was I going to manage bees on top of everything else with my job, being so busy. The hive came in a kit so we put it together and I painted it its one of those lovely old fashioned ones.
Luckily for Martha, she met a local beekeeper called Jan Driver who became her mentor. She put one of her hives in our garden next to ours and so over the years shes been a big help and taught me how to do it. There have been ups and downs and every year, apart from this one, Ive been able to get honey.
She finds beekeeping addictive and you can find her on Twitter tweeting regularly about her hobby. Recently, the Waveney Bee Keepers Group invited her to open an apiary near Beccles, where she proudly cut the ribbon. Its a fantastic venture and so good to see young beekeepers too. She believes its incredibly important for more enthusiasts to emerge because bees are dying out.
Martha and Chris see a lot of her parents and are always meeting up for coffee, enjoying going to places such as The Leaping Hare Restaurant at Wyken Hall. Its lucky for Martha that Chris likes East Anglia as much as her. Well, after hed had his gap year travelling around India he came back and went on a cycling trip around East Anglia and really liked it, so he was happy to move up here.
Chris has also had a long and successful career in television having worked as editor of News at Ten, then Sky when it was being set up and finally ending up in charge of news and current affairs at Channel 5. So what was their pillow talk like? Did they have to be careful not to give away too many state secrets given the competitive nature of broadcast journalism?
Sometimes Ive kept stories from him and hed try to guess what I was doing but I am very strict about that. But a lot of what Channel 5 does is showbiz and entertainment stories and Im more about politics.
Marthas broadcasting and journalism career started in hospital radio when still at Oxford. She was even commissioned to do a feature on Radio 4s Womans Hour (a programme that she went on to present many years later) but she panicked and never delivered it. I didnt think it was good enough and never sent it in. It was feeble when I look back now, but it is so easy to have your confidence knocked. This modesty is very touching from someone whos gone on to have one of the most successful UK broadcasting careers of the last couple of decades.
After leaving Oxford she tried to get v
v into commercial radio, which was starting up at the time. I wrote to all the commercial radio stations and I dont think I got a reply from any of them. Then I heard there were some shifts going at LBC Radio in London. I got some work there in the news information department cutting stories from newspapers I couldnt believe I was being well paid to read newspapers all day. And it was the department to get invitations to cinema screenings, so I led the life of Riley going round London also going to events like oyster tastings at Sheekeys.

I always had the suspicion if it was pouring with rain that Jeremy (Paxman) would keep me on air far longer, just to torture me! He always used to throw me googlies which cracked me up hes great fun

She then worked as a phone operator on phone-in shows for the likes of Jeremy Beadle and Brian Hayes, enjoying every moment of it. It was a brilliant place to work, completely anarchic with people playing cricket in the newsroom it was mad, all very Fleet Street.
After LBC she made her foray into television, joining Channel 4 as an on-air reporter for the programme A Week in Politics, which she thoroughly enjoyed. They had nice offices on Wardour Street and Id get two weeks to research a ten minute film, two weeks to film it and two weeks to edit that would never happen today. I went to Hong Kong for the handover to the Chinese, covered the French elections and then travelled to America to interview Bob Dole."
Sadly for her Channel 4 cancelled the programme, which resulted in her getting a job as a reporter on a new BBC political programme On the Record.
That's where I really began to specialise in Northern Ireland. I spent a lot of time there building up contacts. I spent time with Martin McGuiness and people from both sides. It was an interesting period and a very important story because people were dying and it was also intellectually challenging covering things like the sacred text these were the documents that everyone pored over on both sides to try and see if they could open the door on a united Ireland, or alternatively close the door it was fascinating. I want to do a World at One programme from Belfast soon because I think at the moment its a very worrying situation because of this dissident Republican environment.
So was she looking forward to getting back on the road after sitting behind a studio-based microphone for so long? Yes! Its one of the ironies when youre standing out in the rain in Belfast late at night doing a two way for Newsnight, wishing you were in a warm studio yet now that Im in the studio all day, part of me wishes to be out there in the cold!
Viewers might recall that she had a great, somewhat jokey on-air relationship with Jeremy Paxman, the presenter of Newsnight, and she recalls: I always had the suspicion if it was pouring with rain hed keep me on air far longer, just to torture me! He always used to throw me googlies which cracked me up hes great fun and I like him a lot, I do still see him from time to time.
Travelling is something Martha and Chris enjoy and in their 30s they both resigned from their jobs and took a late gap year. We were both burnt out, Martha recalls, and we just wanted to go away. Maybe in the course of a year we thought we might find something else we wanted to do, but in fact what happened was that we both discovered that we really loved journalism so it was valuable from that point of view.
That became apparent in one funny episode. We were on the Inca Trail in Ecuador, really high up and I tuned in on the radio to get the results of the mid Staffordshire bye election! They had a fascinating year travelling round India and Pakistan, going to Kashmir, trekking in the Himalayas and later going from Mexico all the way down through South America to Brazil.
But once back and settled into her career there was no stopping her. What had she learned from interviewing so many powerful people like Major, Brown, Hilary and Bill Clinton? With each of them it was very different. I spent a lot of time with John Major, making a film taking him back to his roots in South London. In private he came across as much more charming than he was in public. He had an unusual background for a Conservative growing up in Brixton and liking egg and chips! Spending so much time with him I learnt an awful lot more about him than I ever realised. Back then I did some political betting, which I dont do now and I made quite a lot of money betting that he would be Conservative leader!
So what about Bill Clinton? I havent actually interviewed him. Ive met him a couple of times and hes very charismatic. Hilary was early for her Womans Hour interview so I got to have a long chat beforehand and she was interesting off the record; during the interview she was more guarded. At one point I said to her I met your husband last night and her eyes widened! And I told her that Id asked him what would be the best question to ask her, and he said what she got wrong being First Lady, what she found most difficult.
She said she hadnt realised the symbolic importance of the position to the American people, shed always been a career woman and didnt realise how much they needed a figurehead. I thought that was really interesting.
So what of our last Prime Minister, Gordon Brown? Again like John Major, hes very different in private than in public. I interviewed him in No 10 when he was living in the flat (next to the Blairs) where most people were not allowed to film. I saw him with his eldest son John and he was clearly a loving father and was very proud of him. He was happy for me to meet him but wouldnt let the cameras anywhere near him. Hes someone who really doesnt give much away in interviews. Martha has been made patron of a Suffolk based charity called Learning through Leisure, which offers family carers of people with learning disabilities the chance to take a break. Learning Through Leisure is run under the auspices of a larger charity called Optua, which is run by disabled people for disabled people one of the largest charities for people with both mental and physical disabilities. She has been instrumental in helping them to raise money, which she really enjoys.
Her involvement came about because her younger brother Peter is learning disabled. He used to go along to it, so I knew about it firsthand. I go away with Peter on holiday every year, this year we went to the States. With well meaning parents, learning disabled people will always be treated like children because they are vulnerable, whereas when Im with Peter hes an adult and I think thats an important thing about what this charity does.
She says that Chris has taken voluntary redundancy from Channel 5, so will this mean shell be in Suffolk more?
I love Suffolk, although I hope to be able to carry on doing what I do for a long time. Its the perfect balance for me, combining radio and television, news and arts. I love going round the galleries and talking to the artists, it's a real privilege, you meet the authors, read the books I feel incredibly lucky.
So for the time being Suffolk is not going to claim her full time but its apparent where her heart is, with the big East Anglian skies.


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