John Oliver managed to pull off a Very Special Episode on Sunday evening, surprising viewers by revealing that he’d gone to Russia last week for an interview with Edward Snowden.
As part of the comedian’s evolution into a neo-Edward R Murrow, his trip to Moscow had a catalyst – the upcoming 1 June deadline for renewing several crucial sections of the Patriot Act that allow mass surveillance of foreign and domestic individuals and organisations, as revealed by Snowden in his leaks. Except, as Oliver points out, nobody cares. He illustrated it by taking a camera to Time Square in New York City and asking passers-by at random if they knew who Edward Snowden is, and most people had no idea. Some even thought he had something to do with Wikileaks. It’s not a scientific poll, but it’s probably accurate – the discussions and debates that should have been taking place over the last two years haven’t been at the centre of the American political scene.
The thing that makes Oliver’s Last Week Tonight so interesting – and so influential, in such a short space of time, compared to his old home The Daily Show – is that Oliver understands what makes people care. It’s kind of hard not to develop an intuitive sense of that as a comedian, but the potency of Oliver’s advocacy for certain issues is that he makes dull issues into funny ones, while remaining sincerely informative. (Or, if not funny, at least amusing.) He did it best with net neutrality, but it applies just as much to his ribbing of tobacco companies or college basketball.
So, with Snowden, Oliver rightly points out that whenever he (or someone else) starts talking about how a bunch of strange government schemes with names like “Prism” and “X-Keyscore” are dangers to individual liberty, “it’s like the IT guy comes into your office, and you go ‘ohh, shit, oh shit, don’t teach me anything, I don’t want to learn, you smell like canned soup'”. It’s the most down-to-earth recorded interview I’ve ever seen Snowden be a part of:
Oliver: But, just to be clear here, we’re talking two different things here. Domestic surveillance and foreign surveillance.
O: Because domestic surveillance, Americans give some of a shit about. Foreign surveillance, they don’t give any, remote shit about.
S: Well, the second question is when we talk about foreign surveillance, we’re talking about whether we’re applying it in ways that are beneficial-
O: No one cares. [shakes head] They don’t give a shit.
S: We spied on Unicef. The children’s fund.
S: We spied on lawyers negotiating-
O: What was Unicef doing?
S: [blank face]
O: I mean, that’s the question there isn’t it.
S: The question is, are these programs valuable? Are we going to be safer when we’re spying on Unicef, or on lawyers who are negotiating the price of shrimp and clove cigarettes-
O: I don’t think they’ll say that’s good. I think they’ll definitely say they don’t care. Americans do not give a shit-
S: I think you’re right.
O: -about foreign surveillance.
Oliver’s insight here is this: people will care about what Snowden revealed, when put into the context of genitals. Make it clear that this is about the government’s ability to get hold of dick pics, and then you get a conversation going – and that’s the thing Oliver is really pushing here, that there should be a real debate about the extension-or-otherwise of the bits of the Patriot Act that make that interception possible. Make it clear that your husband or wife’s nude pics are being stored on some bureaucrats desktop somewhere, and it gets right to the crux of the privacy/security thing.
(And, side note: Oliver is also one of the few interviewers to speak to Snowden who really pushes back on some of the ethical issues surrounding his leak that others have often ignored, such as his admission that he hadn’t fully read and understood many of the sensitive documents that he passed on to journalists – and he also has him accept culpability for some of the serious mistakes those journalists have made at times in not properly redacting classified information.)
“I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk,” a slightly bashful Snowden admits, at the end – while Oliver sums the debate up as one about whether it’s right that the US is “a country of barely-regulated government-sanctioned dick sheriffs”. It may not be worthy of an Oscar, but it’s a pretty effective interview.