It’s possible that some people will have listened to The Town That Knew Too Much and been surprised (or even disappointed) by how little of the first 6 episodes were dedicated to examining and scrutinising the workings of GCHQ. Well, this final episode — which brings the story to its modern denouement — goes inside the famous Cheltenham landmark and dives into the story of how, in 2013, Edward Snowden blew the lid on its operations.
Making this podcast has been an exercise in trying to balance my natural inclination towards scepticism about the work of the security services with a healthy appreciation for the seriousness with which they undertake their work. And this episode is the most important synthesis of those two conditions — I had, perhaps naively, felt like the Snowden leaks were universally (at least in my Guardian reading part of London) held up as a great example of citizen activism. I had not before encountered the fury with lives endangered and intelligence lost that people in the security services feel towards this bespectacled geek who’s currently exiled in Russia.
At the eleventh hour I also decided to include a segment looking at vaccinations, and the history thereof. There is a connection to Cheltenham through the figure of Edward Jenner, the father of vaccinations. When I was making The Town That Didn’t Stare last summer, I had consciously avoided making any reference to the pandemic, but I freed myself of that constraint this time round. And even though they are very different stories, they nestle together relatively comfortably — grand and devastating tales of human society in the 21st century.
Getting access to the journalists behind the Snowden story was a real pleasure, even though a couple of crucial interviews fell through. Ah well, that’s journalism. But Alan Rusbridger, Ewen MacAskill and James Ball were all there, present at the first draft of history. And the story does unfold like a thriller — secret rendezvous in Hong Kong, a paranoid whistleblower, a mysterious password TEMPORA…
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this series, if you’ve been listening along over the past couple of months. It’s been a lot of work to make and I don’t generate a single penny in return. If you’ve got anything out of listening to do leave a rating and review on Apple if that’s where you listen, but more importantly tell friends and family about it and tag @thetownpod on Twitter or Instagram if you do so that I can share!