It was billed as Julian Assange's "explosive" TV debut. The choice of word was perhaps unfortunate given that the first guest on Assange's much-hyped interview show, The World Tomorrow, was Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shia militant group Hezbollah.
The Kremlin propaganda channel Russia Today has exclusive initial rights to the show, broadcast for the first time on Tuesday around the world.
This pretty much reflects the attitude with which it was received by most of the Western media.
No matter what the West thinks of Assange, the show, the hosting TV network or the interviewee, however, this was a significant event for everyone involved. They all want attention, and given the "explosive" combination and all the hype, they were bound to get a lot of it.
Assange wanted to demonstrate - which he barely did - that he can operate outside of his comfort zone. It was indeed a little too awkward to watch... but well, he managed without breaking down in front of the camera. The questions should have been a little better - indeed, I was hoping he'd be more provocative - but under the circumstances, the event itself was perhaps more notable than the content.
For Nasrallah, and Hizballah in general, this seemed like a great opportunity to make a memorable come-back to the Western media. He hadn't granted interviews to any Western reporters for about six years, but now, his appearance on RT and talking to Assange was clearly meant to send a message. He was guaranteed to get attention from a much bigger number of European and American media, who would most likely sensationalize it (which they did).
He didn't really say much, but he did cover a very broad range of subjects, ranging from Israel, internal Lebanese politics, and Syria to his childhood and religion. Yet again, in this case, Hizballah's initial media strategy priorities - especially in the West - would involve having a voice and a presence, more than anything else. Nasrallah wouldn't need to be promoting a certain view or perspective to a potentially hostile audience, and yet, the airtime he got brought him and Hizballah back to the headlines.
And lastly RT.... which finally got the attention and coverage it was hoping for when trying to get the show in the first place: Since the RT's vision of public diplomacy is rooted in the attempt to counter the Western media hegemony (or, to put it undiplomatically, to stick it to the Americans), this combination of Assange and Nasrallah guaranteed not just sensationalism, but also fulfillment of its objective.
In an ironic and twisted way, this can be said to represent precisely what many in the public diplomacy circles have been calling for: the government (well, RT is as governmental actor here) providing a platform for other actors to interact and engage in dialogue. This was a blunt demonstration of that, perhaps.
It was clear that RT Director Margaria Simonyan was interested primarily in the attention the story got elsewhere. She hyped it up on twitter, asking her followers to guess who the guest was before the show had aired. She said that "Many would be very, very unhappy" about the guest. After it aired, she posted a very excited tweet showing that "The World Tomorrow" was trending on Twitter worldwide. RT got what it wanted, in short.
Nasrallah will be a hard act to follow, but I'm sure they have a similarly outrageous [well, for the intended audience, at least] line-up of "guests" for the near future. Whether there will be as much hullabaloo surrounding it again, is a good question, however. They will have to really try.
P.S. - Apparently, the transcript of the interview was translated into Russian and is now available at the website of RT's host "company" - InoTV.
P.P.S. - To read more about Hizballah's media strategy and their attempts at winning hearts and minds, see my paper in the Journal of International Service.