Remember when John Oliver and Last Week Tonight purchased $15 million in medical debt owed by 9,000 strangers for around $60,000 and forgave it all? Yeah, that was less than two days ago, and already some corners of the internet have come out against HBO’s heavily televised and massively viral display of good will toward others. The first round of naysayers pointed to the debt’s value when purchased by Oliver’s legitimate debt-collection agency, which was more than $14 million less than what the segment advertised when comparing the show’s giveaway to Oprah Winfrey. The second, and most poignant batch of criticism is much harsher, because new claims suggest that Oliver and his team stole the idea from an activist group after consulting with them for research.
Let’s begin with the latter, as its allegations are far more disconcerting than the former’s emphasis on nitpicking the numbers. According to Debt Collective, a “membership organization that leverages” debtors’ needs and numbers via “a shared platform for organization, advocacy, and direct action,” Last Week Tonight‘s senior news researcher Charles Wilson contacted them to discuss their Rolling Jubilee project. Calling itself a “bailout of the people by the people,” Rolling Jubilee launched in 2012 to “liberate debtors at random” by buying debt “for pennies on the dollar” and forgiving it. To date, they’ve raised $701,317 to buy and forgive almost $32 million in debt.
Wilson, Debt Collective alleges in a blog post, said the show “was interested in reproducing” Rolling Jubilee’s efforts. They spent hours discussing the project, both how it came to be and the results, and due to Last Week Tonight‘s past coverage of pressing social issues and light activism, the organization was “under the impression they were interested in highlighting” their activist bent. Instead, Last Week Tonight “did not want to associate themselves with the work of the Rolling Jubilee due to its roots in Occupy Wall Street.”