Jane Clifton

by Joanne Black / 23 July, 2005
Political columnist and author.

Jane Clifton's pen is less a sword than a hypodermic syringe. It is inserted so swiftly, and with a simultaneous swab of humour, that her targets are not sure whether to be outraged or flattered. She started out as a news reporter - "I even broke a couple of stories" - but found her niche as a political sketch writer, columnist and occasional political commentator. For 20 years she has reported on politics, and nearly always met her deadlines, even for her new book, Political Animals (Penguin, $30). At home she lives with two chows, one politician and a siamese cat.

Sorry to ask this as you're leaning over your dogs, but do you think people look like their pets? I wouldn't mind looking like mine. I have tried the hair thing. I'm not sure if people look like their pets, but you can tell a lot about a person by what they look for in a pet. There is that jack russell-type person. Some like feisty, noisy, slightly aggressive animals or others, like me, prefer inert but cheerfully disobliging ones.

Does a person become warped by 20 years of exposure to politics? You do get functionally sceptical and tend to doubt what people tell you. Some of us get cynical, but I don't think I've got cynical, though we do tend to have it both ways as journalists and accuse the government of interfering if it does something, or being ineffectual if it doesn't.

Have you ever wanted to be a politician? No, but there are quite a few journalists who, if not committed to being politicians, are quite glued to various ideologies. I'm almost envious of them, because I can't locate one that I could be happy with. Agnostic is probably a pompous way of describing it - bewildered is probably better. It's hard to hold down one viewpoint on issues for very long.

Does that make it difficult, since you live with an MP (Murray McCully)? Mmmm, it's interesting.

How do you cope with the inherent conflicts in your two careers? There are surprisingly few. Sometimes he'll come home cross about something and he can't tell me what it was and I'll say "What, what is it?" and he'll say "Never mind." Which is kind of frustrating, but I always feel more comfortable not knowing. That's not entirely natural for a journalist, but there's a certain point of pride. It would be deeply humiliating to think you were spoonfed by your boyfriend. As journalists, we don't really get our job satisfaction or self-esteem from getting spoonfed. Quite the opposite. There is a bit of gamesmanship and we love to think we've winkled things out or intelligently second-guessed them or put them together by some form of diligence or originality. I think that's why there was such offence when John Tamihere said Rodney Hide was best mates with Duncan Garner. First, it wasn't true and, second, it was clearly insulting to Duncan, and probably not that hot for Rodney, either. It takes all the fun out of it if people think you have a tame journalist rather than being able to command headlines on your own merits.

Over the years, have there been many MPs you've actively disliked? Very few. I don't have any strenuous reason for disliking any of them, but there are a few whose sense of entitlement is out of all proportion to their ability. And I do develop a hell of a distaste for those MPs who don't do a load of work, but create a lot of mischief.

You grow roses, do embroidery, have a romantic decorating style and own fluffy dogs. Is this normal for a journalist? I suppose I'm not your typical hardbitten journo. I'm more frou-frou. But Parliament is a beguiling place and you can be there all hours. I think a lot of people when they go to work there go through a workaholic phase, but if you're going to stay any length of time you really need to develop a life outside, because otherwise you can lose perspective and become too dependent on it. It's like a self-contained world. I think there's nothing nicer than sitting in Parliament and you drift off and think, "What shall I do in the garden next", or "I wonder what there is to buy in Kirkcaldies' china department this week." Rose growing is a bloody good foil for covering politics.

When you're sitting in your rose garden, what do you read? Over the past few years, I've got very keen on good-quality thrillers. Like Reginald Hill. Michael Cullen put me onto Reginald Hill - he writes the Dalziel/Pascoe books that are on TV - but the books are fantastically well written. And anything by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, who are the same person, only I always think Barbara Vine is slightly better than Ruth Rendell. Ian Rankin is very good - it's such an amazing genre. I've found the key to my enjoyment of them, as a non-competitive person, is not to try to be the smarty boots who gets to the end and says, "I knew he dunnit all along." I take great pleasure in not knowing. I must be the only person in New Zealand who hasn't read The Da Vinci Code or The Lovely Bones.

I buy English gardening magazines. I love the Spectator. It's an absolute joy, and of course American Vogue. I read the Dominion Post and, online, the New Zealand Herald.

How much time do you spend on the Internet? More than I should, because I forget to log off.

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