If you can't beat them join them. Julian Assange has long complained that mainstream media organisations and international broadcasters have given him a hard time.
The WikiLeaks founder portrays himself as a crusader for truth yet is notoriously touchy when it comes to answering difficult questions about his own organisations. But that hasn't put him off reinventing himself as a talk show host, the results of which were finally revealed today.
Despite being under house arrest for nearly 500 days, the Australian-born transparency campaigner has struck a deal with the Kremlin-backed broadcaster Russia Today to conduct a series of interviews with “people who normally don't get a voice”.
The first episode aired today afternoon and quickly made global headlines as it emerged that Mr Assange's first guest was Hassan Nasrallah, the leader the Lebanese Shi'a militant network Hizballah.
While Mr Nasrallah occasionally speaks to the Arab press through Hizballah's television station, he rarely gives interviews to Western outlets especially after his group's 2006 war with Israel forced the 51-year-old cleric into permanent hiding.
With his subject unable to travel to Britain – which proscribes Hizballah as a terrorist group – the show's host had to make do with interviewing his guest over video link from a secret location. The WikiLeaks founder, meanwhile, has been forced to conduct and film all his interviews from Ellingham Hall, the sprawling country house in Norfolk where he is confined to under his bail conditions.
In an interview publicising the series with Russia Today, Mr Assange described how his own difficulties in dealing with the mainstream media made him an interviewer that could relate to his subjects.
“As someone who has given a lot of interviews before and has been on the receiving end of very aggressive interview style I found that I wasn't giving much away in these interviews,” he said. “Pretty quickly you learn to give your standard defensive responses so they can't take what you said out of context. And I wanted to have a different sort of approach with other people.”
With Mr Nasrallah, the soft-spoken Australian was largely deferential, asking just one question on Hizballah's firing of rockets into northern Israel, questioning him on his childhood memories and even sharing a joke about computer encryption.
But there moments when Mr Assange showed some flair for asking tough questions. “Why have you supported the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and other countries but not in Syria,” he asked the leader of Hizballah, whose closeness to the Syrian regime is well known and has placed the militant group in a difficult position given the popularity of the Arab uprisings.
“In Syria everybody knows that Bashar al-Assad's regime has supported the resistance in Lebanon and in Palestine,” he replied, sounding more like a mouthpiece of the Syrian regime, than a fiercely independent revolutionary leader. “It has not backed down in the face of Israeli and American pressure so it is a regime which has served the Palestinian cause very well.”
Pressed whether his views would change if the Syrian regime began killing its own people in even greater numbers, Mr Nasrallah said he believed President Bashar al-Assad was “ready to carry out radical reforms” and attacked rebel groups for being infiltrated by al-Qa'ida elements and “killing very many civilians”.
Both Russia Today and WikiLeaks are keeping quiet about who else has been interviewed for the series. It is believed activists from Bahrain and the Occupy movement will be given air time. Mr Assange has created his own production company to make the show stressing that he therefore retains full editorial control. However he has been criticised for choosing Russia Today to synidciate the show given that it is paid for the by Moscow and represents a vociferously pro-Russian view.
Asked why he had chosen Russia Today Mr Assange said: “In the case we are in at the moment, where our major confrontation is with the West, although we have published material from many countries, RT is the natural partner.” He added that the relationship might not be so comfortable if WikiLeaks had published large amounts of compromising data on Russia.
Heading off criticism for his choice of partner he added: “There's Julian Assange, enemy combatant, a traitor, getting in to bed with the Kremlin and interviewing terrible radicals from around the world. I think that's a pretty trivial kind of attack. If they actually look at how the show is made: we make it, we have complete editorial control, we believe that all media organisations have an angle, all media organisations have an issue.”
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