Julian Assange is an excellent conversationalist—or so Vaughan Smith, the proprietor of the celebrated Frontline Club in London, told Newsweek recently. Assange is under house arrest while he fights extradition to Sweden, where he is accused of sexually assaulting two women in August 2010. While his case worked its way through the U.K. courts, the WikiLeaks founder spent much of the last year as a guest at Smith’s magisterial Norfolk estate. There the pair had ample time to talk. “He’s damn good company over a glass of wine,” Smith said, using the term “walking encyclopedia” to describe Assange. “You can talk about anything.”
WikiLeaks announced last week that Assange will be putting his interlocutory talents to work as the host of a new talk show, filmed at Smith’s estate. As of press time the guest list had yet to be announced, but according to WikiLeaks, “Assange will draw together controversial voices from across the political spectrum—iconoclasts, visionaries, and power insiders.”
Sounds like a good gig for one of the world’s leading critics of state secrets. When the new program was announced, though, even some Assange supporters were left scratching their heads. The show is set to air on RT, formerly known as Russia Today, an English-language station funded by the Kremlin—which is fresh off allegations of election fraud and international condemnation for its crackdowns on pro-democracy protests. Russian media tycoon Alexander Lebedev took to Twitter to pillory Assange when he heard the news: “Shame on you, Mr. Assange! Hard to imagine more miserable final[e] for ‘world order challenger’ than employee of state-controlled ‘Russia Today.’”
The station has long been criticized as a vehicle for state propaganda. “RT is seen by Putin’s opponents as a government tool targeting Western audiences,” says Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. But in Assange’s ongoing battle of wills with the United States, pro-Kremlin media—which have been occupied of late with disparaging the new U.S. ambassador—might be a fitting ally. RT claims to reach 430 million people worldwide and has satellite stations around the globe, including in the U.S.
With Assange’s legal appeal to be heard this week—and, by most expert accounts, likely to fail—he may have found a way to ensure that he won’t be silenced, even if he’s locked away. A decision on his case could come as early as the end of the week, though more likely in February or March, according to Julian Knowles QC, a barrister in London who specializes in extradition. After that, “he will be onto a plane to Sweden within 10 days.” The show begins airing in March.
Since WikiLeaks began unleashing the “Cablegate” leaks in February 2010, it has been reduced from data dumps to desperate pleas for cash. Its funding dried up thanks to U.S. pressure on credit-card companies and PayPal, and the man accused of leaking the files to Assange may soon face a court-martial. Then there were the Swedish charges, which buried Assange in legal fees. Some supporters believe the case is a ploy to get him extradited to the U.S., though Knowles calls this a “fantasy,” pointing out that extradition might even be easier from London.
In any case, the WikiLeaks founder’s enemies might finally see him muzzled, at least for a while. If he’s extradited, “it is unlikely that Assange would be given bail, and he may well be held in isolation,” notes Jago Russell of Fair Trials International. Assange likely won’t have access to a computer, or much else of the outside world. But American fans can still catch him on Channel 280 of Dish TV.