Jemima Khan: Just don't call her a socialite

With her fervent support for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, is the inveterate campaigner finally emerging from the shadow of her ex-husband and gilded family inheritance?
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Manically private, undemonstrative and a blusher. It's not how most people would imagine Jemima Khan, the glamorous ex-wife of cricketer Imran Khan, former girlfriend of Hugh Grant, confidante of Princess Diana and star performer before the massed microphones and cameras of the world's media outside the WikiLeaks court hearing in London.

Yet that's how she describes herself. She said as much in June when writing in The Sunday Times about the social networking site Twitter, a place she had always assumed "gives monomaniacs a Tannoy".

For all Khan's blushing, "socialite" is how the press usually brands her, this beautiful, immaculately coiffured friend to blue bloods and entertainment royalty alike, who parties with Kate Moss and Tom Jones, with Guy Ritchie, Natalie Imbruglia and members of Pink Floyd.

A socialite! Jemima hates that. "Calling me a 'socialite' is such a lazy way for journalists to undermine me," she complained this week on Twitter, to which she has lately become a fervent convert. She has 31,000 followers, whom she exhorts to consume the output of veteran leftist campaigners such as John Pilger and Michael Moore, her new allies in opposing the extradition to the US of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, which has become the scourge of Governments around the world.

"Keep being warned that the right-wing press are going to slaughter me for this stance," Khan said on Twitter, where she corresponds earnestly with the radio presenter Richard Bacon and the new CNN chat show king Piers Morgan. Clearly she has had stick for the contradiction some see in the wealthy Jemima stepping outside of the Capability Brown-designed grounds of her £15m Oxfordshire mansion, Kiddington Hall, to take up cudgels for human rights. "I rarely go out, I write, have worked for charities my entire adult life and I campaign on issues that I believe in," she protested to one of her online correspondents.

And it's true, she is a dedicated campaigner, and a brave one. She has worked hard for Unicef in raising awareness of child poverty, enforced labour and sexual exploitation. Three years ago, she took to the streets to protest over the regime of Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, reflecting her enduring concern for the country where she lived for much of her nine-year marriage. Her conversion from Judaism to Islam still makes her a target for bigots of all religious hues.

Writing in The Observer last Sunday, Khan, 36, explained her reasons for supporting Assange, whom she praises for his role in exposing "war crimes" but who is wanted in Sweden for alleged sex offences. "I was there because I believe that this is about censorship and intimidation," she wrote. "An accusation of rape is the ultimate gag. Until proved otherwise, Assange has done nothing illegal, yet he is behind bars."

Khan said that, although she had some concerns about the way WikiLeaks operates, she believes the site is central to the future of investigative journalism. "I feel passionately that democracy needs a strong and free media. It is the only way to ensure governments are honest and remain accountable."

As well as being a dedicated mother to her two sons, she sees herself as a writer and dreams of writing a novel. Among her journalistic assignments has been an interview with Gen Musharraf conducted in Rawalpindi for this newspaper in 2008. During that piece she reflected that, as she challenged the president over his failings in tackling corruption, she may have acted in an insufficiently feminine way. "I'm lounging like a bloke and downing pomegranate juice like lager." She also reminded readers that during her time in Pakistan, Musharraf's predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, attempted "to have me jailed on trumped-up politically motivated charges of smuggling" antique tiles out of the country.

That experience may have encouraged her interest in the Assange case, where her involvement became public only because the WikiLeaks founder's lawyer, Mark Stephens, persuaded her to come to court and act as surety rather than be a mere anonymous supporter. "I was nervous about the inevitable media circus, but felt that it was the right thing to do," she said.

Her father, the billionaire financier Sir James Goldsmith, was briefly the publisher of the French news magazine L'Express. But he was hardly seen as a champion of free speech. His long-running battle with Private Eye nearly bankrupted the magazine. Jemima's mother, Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, daughter of the eighth Marquess of Londonderry, would certainly not baulk at being called a "socialite". She was once described by The Daily Telegraph as a "one-woman glitterati procurement programme"; Annabel's club, the London hangout of the upper-class party set, was named after her by her first husband, Mark Birley. But she also has a campaigning spirit and was spotted on that 2007 Musharraf demo wielding a "No Justice, No Peace" placard. Zac Goldsmith, the elder of her two younger brothers, also defies simple categorisation. The Conservative MP for Richmond Park is one of Britain's best-known environmental campaigners.

Jemima Khan was only 21 when she married the retired Pakistan cricket captain, who was twice her age. The couple wed in a traditional Islamic ceremony in Paris. She embraced her new culture and later founded a fashion label to sell traditional Pakistani clothing. After the Iraq invasion, she reflected local opinion by saying she was angry and ashamed to be British.

Even so, her campaigning pedigree and her relationships with the likes of Pilger and Moore are not enough to guarantee her credentials as a champion of liberal values. Writing in The Guardian this week, Hadley Freeman noted that Khan was also speaking out on the imprisonment of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman on death row, and described the ubiquitous Jemima as the "Kate Moss of current causes". Of Khan's involvement in the WikiLeaks case, Freeman sarcastically quipped: "This has been salvation for all those out there saying: 'Hang on – never mind what international lawyers are saying about Assange – let's hear what the daughter of a dodgy millionaire has to say on the subject'."

In the Daily Mail, Jan Moir wrote that "it is certainly not the business of Ms Jemima Khan and company to cast their verdicts on the case". Moir was famously targeted by the Twitter community for her outspoken comments about the death of the gay singer Stephen Gately. Khan's actions in support of internet freedoms may make her a heroine on the social platform, if not in traditional media.

When she spoke to The Sunday Times five years ago, the interviewer complained that she had imposed constraints on him worthy of the Downing Street spin-doctor Alastair Campbell and opined that Khan "loathes the media".

She may have good reasons for her suspicions. She was the victim of intrusive paparazzi pictures during her marriage, turned to lawyers over tabloid coverage of her relationship with Grant, and last week complained of her treatment in a "snide report in The Times" which wrote of her as "A socialite ... who describes herself as a sometimes writer". There's that undermining S-word again. Khan reflected on the irony of the "same paper asking me to write a piece".

Discussing the WikiLeaks extradition case, she complains that "journalists should be behind this cause too instead of being pointlessly snide and petty". But despite her difficulties with the press, she campaigns for its freedoms and, though she doesn't need a regular income, she retains her hunger for writing. For Jemima Khan, the apparently shy and blushing object of media fixation, there is no contradiction. "Surely there's a difference tho[ugh]," she tweets, "between exposing war crimes/the use of torture and who a celebrity may or may not be having sex with." She's right, of course, but then this remarkable Assange story deals with all those subjects and more.

A life in brief

Born: Jemima Marcelle Goldsmith, 30 January 1974, London.

Education: Attended Francis Holland School. 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.

Family: Eldest daughter of Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart and Anglo-French financier Sir James Goldsmith. Two brothers, Ben and Zac, as well as eight half-siblings. Married the retired Pakistani cricket captain and politician Imran Khan in 1995. The couple divorced in 2004. They have two sons, Suleiman and Quasim.

Career: Contributed to publications including The Independent, The Sunday Times and Evening Standard. Ambassador for Unicef UK in 2001, and set up an appeal for Afghan refugees in Peshawar. Founded the Free Pakistan Movement in 2007.

She says: "Why did I back up Julian Assange? It's about justice and fairness."

They say: "Jemima is a thoughtful and serious person, who is not afraid to stand for the principles she upholds." Activist Bianca Jagger