John Oliver is an important voice in the journalism sphere – whether he says so or not. Who else on television manages to expose flaws in the Miss America scholarship for women, municipal violations laws, or FIFA’s business practices, all while maintaining a focus on comedy and attracting a large international audience? He even contacted the Russian President about a bunch of space geckos.
HBO provides Oliver and his Last Week Tonight team with full creative freedom, allowing them to take on corporations or international leaders, even with the occasional backlash. He is well and truly positioned within the comedy news or news satire genre – a type of journalism that started with The Daily Show and is characterised by metacoverage – though Oliver seems to be carving his own path with more of a focus on exposé-like feature stories.
I first encountered his work on The Daily Show as a correspondent in which he discussed America’s gun laws in a three part series. For the report he travelled to Australia and interviewed former Prime Minister John Howard and other key players in the gun reform laws. If you haven’t seen the series, they’re brilliant, check them out.
If you watched the latest instalment of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, you’ll know how terrific his feature story on ‘surveillance’ was. He discussed “Section 215” of the Patriot Act, which essentially allows the US government to monitor and store information and personal communication between citizens.
It’s particularly pertinent in Australia right now, with the Australian government practically unanimously passing its own data retention laws recently.
It’s a tricky subject, that nobody wants or knows how to talk about, not even Oliver himself. In a perfect world we all want perfect privacy and perfect security, but the two are mutually exclusive; they cannot co-exist in perfect harmony within our digital environment.
In order to help elucidate the issue, Oliver travels to Russia to interview Edward Snowden, of all people – the man who leaked NSA documents regarding domestic and international surveillance matters. Snowden is solicited to explain the issue, but here’s the thing, no one cares about spying on people in other countries; people are only concerned with how it affects them on a personal level.
Oliver’s interview is unique. He’s not interested in whether Snowden is a martyr or traitor; he’s solely concerned with how this complicated subject should be understood by the general public. At this point in time, publics are not entirely cognisant of either Snowden or the details of Section 215, demonstrated by a handful of people interviewed in Times Square. Even journalists deem the subject of little popularity to publics, evidenced by an interrupted discussion with a congress member on a news service to cover a Justin Bieber arrest.
So how does Oliver frame the discussion with Snowden about surveillance if nobody knows or seems to care about the issue on a large, technical scale? He makes it relatable and, most importantly, funny.
Sure, framing the issue in the context of sending “dick pics” isn’t exactly the definition of reputable journalism, but Oliver isn’t concerned with being respectable or even a journalist. He is first and foremost a comedian – a politically and socially astute one albeit. He earns respect by using his role as a comedian to take an interest in these issues that otherwise may not be covered in the major news media. Humour popularises the issue and increases the likelihood that people will be talking about the subject of surveillance the next day and sharing his video.
After all, it’s not a conversation we want to have, but rather one we need to have, and Oliver ingeniously crafts a simple approach to drive this discussion into the public sphere. And that’s what makes him so important.
Unfortunately for us Aussies, Last Week Tonight only airs on Comedy Central and HBO now geo-blocks their videos on YouTube, so below is a counterfeit version (while it lasts). The original can otherwise be viewed here.