- Arts & Literature
- Science & Technology
By Alis Lewis & James Restall
In Facebook conversations leaked to The Oxford Student, the then-President John Lee confirmed to a friend that he would be guaranteed entrance to the talk if he signed up to the members’ ballot.
This is despite an email sent to all members by The Oxford Union confirming that a “random ballot” would be used to determine admittance for the event.
The conversation stems from Lee telling a friend: “You are obviously gonna get on so no need to ballot.”
After his friend sought clarification, the former President continued: “Ballot, so that I can remember to put you.
“I basically go through the spreadsheet and pick my friends first and then pick people reandomly [sic].”
In an email to The Oxford Student, Lee confirmed that this friend was listed on his personal guest list for the event along with other friends. However this individual also appears on the list of members who successfully balloted along with nine others who appear on both lists.
Last term the Union claimed that an “IT error” had caused these duplications.
They claimed: “We made clear that a current email address was needed when we announced the balloting procedure on the Facebook group.
“In cases where members provided out-of-date email addresses, their names did not go through to the database which was in operation on the door. This is why, when these members’ Union cards were scanned, they appeared not to be on the list.
“Hence having to add their names to the guest list at the last minute. To reiterate, these names appear to have been non-balloting guests, but they were, in fact, ‘ballotees’.”
However, since the Facebook conversation has come to light, the Union has stated: “It is common practice that, in return for the time and effort that the President puts into arranging and managing major speaker events (and this was a particularly high-profile one), they are allowed to have several personal guests at the event itself.
“It should be noted that the Mr Lee’s personal guests in this case totaled roughly 20 members, which was proportionate for the event and the time spent organising and managing it.
“The way in which the former President’s sentiment was expressed is unfortunate, and not at all representative of how the Union operates,” he added.
“It is clear that he was having a light and informal conversation with a friend, rather than accurately describing how our officials run events.”
Life membership of the Union costs £235.87 and gives students the opportunity to hear talks from world-renowned personalities. Speakers in recent years have included the actors Bill Nighy and Johnny Depp.
When asked last term about the Union’s balloting system for speaker events, Izzy Westbury, President of the Union in Michaelmas 2011, said: “Guest lists are formed at the President’s discretion, but I know that when I was President this was done via a ballot system.
“Obviously this is not publicly scrutinised, but is impartial and fair and open to any member of the society to apply and is advertised both on Facebook and through the Union’s mail-out.”
Over 1,300 balloted for PSY’s hotly anticipated visit, with fewer than 400 successfully gaining admittance.
Several unsuccessful applicants have expressed their anger at the event’s selection process. Mehrunissa Sajjad, an English Literature and History second-year from Merton, said: “I feel that one of the main reasons that people pay such high membership fees is to watch VIP speakers at the Union.”
She added: “The fact that the ballot has been conducted unfairly basically means that the Union has been swindling people out of their money.”
˜Sara Polakova, a third-year Archaeology and Anthropology student from St Hugh’s College, said that she was “not as much angered as disappointed”.
She added: “I understand wanting to please your friends, and after all, we are all only human. But given The Oxford Union’s often negative press both in local and nation-wide media, and the large responsibility of the elected President, not evenmentioning the extortionately high membership fee.
“It is disappointing to see that such a key event in the Oxford calendar was so corrupted, and makes me wonder what other events were ‘doctored’ in a similar fashion.
“Oxford University as well as the Union are ferociously trying to fight the negative image of the privileged ‘Old Boys’ Club’ which is often ascribed to them.
This piece of news has done nothing to ameliorate that.”
James Routley, a second-year Chemist at Trinity, said: “PSY’s been my favourite artist since his 2001 debut PSY from the PSYcho World. To learn that I may have been cheated out of seeing him by John Lee’s skulduggery is upsetting to say the least.”
A postgraduate member of the Union, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “It is deeply disturbing to learn that this sort of nepotism actually exists within the Union. It simply gives credence to critics who see it as an opaque, elitist institution.”
During the event the South Korean star talked about his career and taught members the dance for his internet viral hit Gangnam Style.
Additional reporting by Matt Handley
PHOTO/ Aneesh Aggarwal