The Oxford Union regularly invites and then cancels speakers who are considered to lack sufficient profile in a process referred to on the inside as “binning”, several ex-Union officers and committee members have told The Oxford Blue. Among those “binned” was former NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) President Cornell Brooks.
Recently, the Union attracted controversy when it was revealed that an invitation was sent and then withdrawn from the creator of Father Ted and The IT Crowd, Graham Linehan, who has been widely criticised for being vocally transphobic. Many initially assumed that the invitation was withdrawn because of concerns about Linehan’s transphobia, but many former Union representatives have suggested that this is highly unlikely to be the case.
“If you’ve been binned post-invite, it’s not because you’re too controversial,” the former Union Treasurer tweeted, “it’s because someone better said yes.” An anonymous former Union officer was also sceptical, remarking that “it seems odd, if it is someone that you now realise is problematic, to talk about the prospect of coming in the future in the way the binning email did.”
The Union has in the past been no stranger to controversial speakers, with figures such as Marine Le Pen, Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson having given addresses or participated in debates in recent years, all of which drew criticism and led to demonstrations outside the Union. The Oxford Union has long prided itself on its motto “the last bastion of free speech”, and one insider told The Blue that “this term is much more open to ‘contentious’ speakers on the grounds they can be challenged for the views they hold. Laurence Fox is rumoured by very good sources to be on the term card.”
The word used by the ex-Treasurer in her tweet was “binned”, a reference to the Union’s practice of ‘binning’ candidates they have invited to events, and who have confirmed, but who are not considered high-profile enough. During Trinity and Michaelmas terms of 2020, The Oxford Blue found that a total of 215 speakers were ‘binned’ for the 23 debate events alone, averaging over 9 speakers being binned per debate, with more having been binned for individual addresses.
Former NAACP President and Black-American activist Cornell Brooks was one speaker who fell victim to this process of binning after he was initially invited on the 18th of March 2020 and promptly replied back expressing his interest the next day. Over the next two months, both he and his assistant followed up multiple times but were met with radio silence. Officers were regularly told by the then-President “don’t reply just yet” and to “still hold off” in regards to communication with invitees while a binning decision was being made behind the scenes before they finally decided to cancel the invite, on the grounds that the guest was a “tad too small”.
“Speakers are usually binned because too many people have accepted the Union’s invitation to speak,” one former representative explained, “a senior committee member will then decide who the least interesting or lowest-profile individuals are and bin accordingly.” The process of ‘binning’ a speaker generally involves sending polite emails; a former official told The Blue that “speakers are informed there has been a logistical or scheduling issue when they are binned.” In fact, a document titled “Bin template” from Trinity Term 2020 was leaked to The Blue, containing what appears to be a generic email to be sent out to any speakers that need to be canceled. The email reads:
“I hope this finds you well and I apologise for taking so long to get back to you. Unfortunately, we have encountered some significant scheduling difficulties on our end whereby technological constraints, and reduced capacity of our AV/IT team during the current outbreak, have meant that we are only able to complete a certain number of interview recordings. This number of recordings is substantially lower than we first anticipated and unfortunately means that we will not be able to proceed with this interview for the upcoming term. We apologise wholeheartedly for this and hope that we will be able to welcome XXX at the Union in the future, once these unprecedented times are over and we can host speakers in Oxford once more.”
One former prominent Union figure attributed the need for large numbers of invites and eventual “binning” to the fact that “in order to complete a ‘vac day’ [a specified number of days that committee members must work for the Union in the holidays] committee members were encouraged to meet a target number of invites – and this could be up to 20 speakers on ‘debate days’ – and some presidents would refuse to award vac days if this was not met.”
Another ex-standing officer recounted, “Vacation days are high pressure environments where senior committee members must quickly organise numerous events, which has the unfortunate consequence that sometimes too many speakers are invited. Hence, speakers are regularly binned.”
All senior officers of the Oxford Union have been approached for comment.