Julia Gillard was given no prior knowledge of Julian Assange’s appearance on Q&A last night, while the ABC has also told Crikey his prickly question was sought out by the show’s producers because of its news value.

The notorious whistleblower, currently facing heat from Swedish prosecutors over an alleged sexual assault case, appeared via a recorded video from house arrest in the UK to ask the prime minister whether the Australian government had shared intelligence with foreign powers on Australians who work with WikiLeaks.

Assange said he had evidence of collusion and unless his answer received a “full and frank” response Gillard should be charged with treason. Gillard responded by saying she was not aware of any such deal and that it was typical for governments to exchange information about Australian citizens when it came to criminal matters.

Q&A executive producer Peter McEvoy says the ABC was not involved in writing or recording Assange’s question and Gillard was given no prior notice he would be appearing. Assange was approached for his question after the prime minister confirmed she would be appearing on the show, he said.

“Every question to every panelist on Q&A is delivered without advance notice,” McEvoy told Crikey. “Ms Gillard is the prime minister of Australia. I think she’s more than capable of answering difficult and confronting questions off the cuff.”

Assange’s question came in for a beating from Dennis Shanahan at The Australian today, who branded it an “ambush” by the ABC:

“The ambush of Gillard, with no warning from the program, which claims to provide unscripted questions from ‘you’ the audience, was worse television terrorism than the Seven Network’s ‘shit happens’ ambush of Tony Abbott by Mark Riley.”

Politicians from both sides also lined up to pillory Assange for his question. Labor frontbencher Craig Emerson attacked Assange for propagating conspiracy theories, while opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis described the question as “absurd”.

ABC communications director Michael Millet told Crikey Shanahan’s piece was the only negative reaction he had seen and The Australian‘s decision to run the WikiLeaks founder’s comments as an inside page lead was evidence of its news value.

It’s not the first time a question from Q&A has caused controversy. In one program last year, ex-Guantanamo inmate David Hicks asked former prime minister John Howard about his treatment in the notorious prison.

The national broadcaster has copped a caning from the national broadsheet recently, particularly over the capacity of ABC News 24 to cover the Japan earthquakes. Media Watch also devoted much of its program last night to, as host Jonathan Homes dubbed it, “ABC News 12”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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