A progressive activist group with roots in the Occupy Wall Street movement accused John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight of copying their work, then misrepresenting it as part of Oliver’s $15 million debt-forgiveness giveaway on Sunday.
“On this episode, John Oliver advocates for vague milquetoast ‘reform’ of the industry while making sure to encourage everybody who ‘can’ to repay their debts,” the Debt Collective said in a statement. “But apparently our activism–or our message–was beyond the pale. Apparently our position that NO ONE should have to go into debt to secure the basic necessities of life, and that any debt incurred to pay for health care or education is morally illegitimate is too radical for LWT.”
According to the Debt Collective, the gesture — and researcher Charles Wilson in particular — was inspired by the group’s “Rolling Jubilee” campaign, which launched in 2012 and abolished more than $30 million in tuition and medical debt until it stopped taking donations last year.
“This debt is immoral, but the immorality of it comes down on the side of the lenders, not on the side of the debtors,” a spokesperson said at the time.
The collective said Wilson contacted it eight months ago saying the show wanted to reproduce its efforts.
“Because LWT has previously done a good job of highlighting the outrageousness and injustice of various issues, we were under the impression they were interested in highlighting the mechanisms of oppression used by the creditor class as well as our ongoing organizing work to challenge these unjust arrangements,” the statement read.
The campaign subsequently told Wilson how it was able to acquire the debt and also put him in contact with experts who could also help him.
“At the last minute Wilson told us LWT did not want to associate themselves with the work of the Rolling Jubilee due to its roots in Occupy Wall Street,” the statement read. “Instead John Oliver framed the debt buy as his idea: a giveaway to compete with Oprah. The lead researcher who worked on this segment invoked the cover of journalism to justify distancing themselves from our project.”
The collective called that statement “ironic,” arguing that Oliver has already engaged in activism through his work.
On Sunday, Oliver revealed that after creating a debt acquisition company online, his show was able to buy $14,922261.76 in debt for less than $60,000, calling it “disturbingly easy.” He then sent the list of debtors to another advocacy group, RIP Medical Debt.
“This is only going to help the 9,000 people whose medical debt we bought,” he said. “The larger issue is, we need much clearer rules and tougher oversight to protect consumers from potentially predatory companies like the one we set up.”