Assange makes talk show debut from house prison

By Jerome Taylor

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 yesterday.

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 was broadcast yesterday and quickly made global headlines as it emerged that Assange's first guest was Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Shia militant network Hizbollah.

While Nasrallah occasionally speaks to the Arab press through Hizbollah'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 Hizbollah as a terrorist group - the show's host had to make do with interviewing his guest by video link from a secret location.

In an interview publicising the series with Russia Today, Assange described how his own difficulties in dealing with the mainstream media made him an interviewer who could relate to his subjects.

"As someone who has given a lot of interviews before and has been on the receiving end of a very aggressive interviewing 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 Nasrallah, the softly-spoken Australian was largely deferential, asking just one question on Hizbollah's firing of rockets into northern Israel, questioning him on his childhood memories and even sharing a joke about computer encryption.

But there were moments when 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.

Hizbollah's closeness to the Syrian regime is well-known and has placed the militant group in a difficult position.

"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 an 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 on whether his views would change if the Syrian regime began killing its own people in even greater numbers, Nasrallah said he believed Assad was "ready to carry out radical reforms" and attacked rebel groups for being infiltrated by al-Qaeda 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. 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 syndicate the show given that it is paid for by Moscow and represents a vociferously pro-Russian view.

- Independent

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