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"Sister of a Tory, rich twat and acc[ording] to some, more socialite than socialist, I know some NS readers will be irked. Judge the issue, not me."

So wrote - on Twitter - Jemima Khan, heiress, freedom of speech campaigner, occasional writer and now political interviewer.

Call her anything, just not a socialite. "It's such a lazy way for journalists to undermine me," she says.

Khan's latest contribution to journalism came last week when she interviewed the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, for the New Statesman and guest-edited the week's issue, themed around freedom of speech, pulling in contributors from Russell Brand to her ex, Hugh Grant.

Jason Cowley, New Statesman editor, said he had been thinking about the idea since Khan had unexpectedly turned up at the trial of the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, posting part of the bail money.

Cowley said he was impressed: "An interviewer asked why she was there. She said that she had never met Assange but believed profoundly in the work of WikiLeaks, as I do."

A breakfast meeting followed.

"She seemed quite nervous but very determined," recalled Cowley.

"I knew quite quickly the issue would be a success because she has good journalistic instincts, sound judgment and charm."

Why, he adds, would anybody object to her guest-editing?

"Because she's very rich? Far better to judge people as you find them, by what they do and say, and Jemima has been very committed to human rights issues in Pakistan and to freedom of information and the open society."

Jemima Marcelle Goldsmith was just 20 when she met the 42-year-old Imran Khan on a night out with friends and the two were engaged within weeks, thrilling and horrifying their acquaintances and admirers.

"I always assumed that my wife fell in love with me because of my passions and ambitions," Imran Khan said later.

Within months, she converted to Islam and on May 16, 1995, the couple wed in a two-minute Islamic ceremony in Paris. On June 21, they were married again in a civil ceremony at the Richmond register office before heading off to Lahore. The marriage produced two sons, Sulaiman, now 14, and Kasim, 12.

The Spanish honeymoon at Goldsmith farm was marred by a photographer who took shots of the couple on a sun terrace, with Imran wearing only a sombrero. Jemima's father, billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, was incandescent and bought the pictures. But her father couldn't save what Imran said was a "tough marriage".

In Lahore, he immediately began his political career while his wife had to adapt to a modest home in a poverty-stricken city.

As rumours circulated her marriage was in crisis, she placed an advertisement in Pakistan newspapers. It read: "Whilst it is true that I am currently studying for a master's degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, it is certainly not true to say that Imran and I are having difficulties in our marriage. This is a temporary arrangement."

But it was not to be and Imran now lives alone on his farm, where he grows fruit trees and keeps cows. He maintains a cricket ground for his two sons, who visit during their holidays and are said to be "quite good" at the sport that made their father a star.

He blames the 2004 divorce on "a geographical problem". "Cross-cultural marriages are always more difficult. In the Western countries, marriages are difficult. All my friends have got divorced, some of them twice," he said. "It was because the two of us realised that she could not live in Pakistan and I could not live outside Pakistan. Once we realised that it became impossible to make the marriage work. And yet we have a very strong bond, we always had it."

The Goldsmith family home in Richmond Park, Surrey, remains the house where the former Pakistan cricket captain stays when he is in London. Khan lives in Fulham [west London] and in Oxfordshire with her beloved boys and boyfriend, New York literary agent Luke Janklow.

Khan talks frequently and fondly about her ex-husband, commenting: "Someone cynical once said, 'Never marry someone who you wouldn't want to be divorced from.' In this respect, I've been very lucky."

She still has immense warmth towards Pakistan: "It's the country I feel I grew up in and was a part of, arriving at 20 and emerging a decade later a more questioning and conflicted person. I am still maddened by its faults but I bristle and become defensive if others criticise."

She remains deeply mindful of how she is perceived in the country and has refused to answer interviewers who ask if she is still a practising Muslim.

"Religion for me is very personal and I don't really like talking about it," she said last week.

She is a patron of the moderate Islamic think tank the Quilliam Foundation, a move which gained her death threats from extremists.

"Importantly, Jemima is a friend," said Quilliam's co-founder, Maajid Nawaz. "However, she is also a disarmingly intelligent, down-to-earth, caring and socially conscious philanthropist and loving parent. These are what makes her personality appealing to so many both here and abroad."

If anything comes before beliefs and politics for Khan, it is her family.

Her younger brother, Zac, is a Tory MP and she campaigned hard for his election last year, even though she didn't share all his political views.

Her adored late father loved a political battle. An anti-European, his long-running battle with Private Eye nearly bankrupted the satirical magazine and his reaction to being asked by Imran for his daughter's hand was the non-culturally sensitive: "Why? Has she been shoplifting?"

Many otherwise hard-nosed men do find themselves a little breathless in her company.

Clegg seems to have been reduced to sentimental pulp but, says WikiLeaks lawyer Mark Stephens: "Woe betide if you get seduced by her charm and undoubted good looks, as many interviewees have discovered to their cost. There is a serious intellect working that gives no quarter to sloppy thinking."

"Jemima is cut from the same sort of cloth as Arianna Huffington, a bit fearless and utterly genuine," says Henry Porter, a journalist who has been working with Khan on a civil liberty campaign.

"And yes it's easier to be fearless if you've got money but we have a great tradition of grand lady radicals going back to the Whigs of the 18th century. The Duchess of Devonshire and all that. Jemima is very much part of that tradition. I'm quite sure we'll be seeing a lot more of her."

Born and read
Jemima Khan
Born: January 30, 1974, in London.

Eldest daughter of Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart and financier Sir James Goldsmith. Degree in English from Bristol University and an MA in Middle Eastern studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Best of times: Her guest edit issue, which included Khan interviewing Nick Clegg on a train, saw a sell-out of the New Statesman magazine last week.

Worst of times: Already a nervous flyer, Khan was with her two young sons on a 747 airliner from London to Nairobi in December 2000 when a hijacker tried to crash the plane. He was overpowered and the plane landed safely.

What she says: "Just interviewed Nick Clegg. Impertinent questions, plenty of interrupting, disingenuous little laugh. I am now fully fledged scumbag hack." (From her Twitter account.)

What others say: "She's also been underestimated. She's smart, writes well and she's a liberal." Jason Cowley, editor of the NS.