The big thing about the Big Issue

The Guardian, May 1 1994

The Big Issue is famous for rescuing homeless people. Two thousand men, women and runaway adolescents now sell the magazine on the streets where they sleep and earn themselves enough money to survive. But it ought to be famous for something else: the Big Issue is just about the last refuge of honest, angry, investigative journalism. And there’s a lesson in that.

It is, in part, a lesson about the disheartening decline of Fleet Street in the last 20 years, where journalism has been diluted by commercialism, legal constraint and political compromise. But, more important, the editorial energy of the Big Issue tells you something about its news values and about the people who produce it and, in particular, about the strange and rebellious man who edits it.

But first, look at the stories they have been turning up, usually months before the mainstream media heard about them: the ‘tax men’ who have started running protection rackets to extort money out of beggars in the West End of London; the ‘red-lining’ by High Street banks who have been abandoning the poorest parts of the inner city and leaving residents with no form of banking in the area; the spread of TB among the homeless; the fate of servicemen pushed out of the armed forces by the ending of the Cold War.

And look at the people they’re writing about: the husband and wife who are resisting the Triads in Chinatown; the two brothers who were sexually abused by their mother and took a megaphone to a street corner to tell their tale and to protest at police indifference; the mother who went looking for her runaway teenaged daughter and ended up living alongside her on the streets of London to protect her; the prostitute who is suing a punter who raped her and escaped without prosecution; the runaway boys who are scooped off the streets by organised paedophile rings; the women who have worked in the pornography industry and never recovered.

These are powerful stories. In fact, they contain the four elements which more or less define a good story: they are honest and unexpected, they have strong human interest and they tell you something about the world. If you took an average Fleet Street newspaper, say the Sunday Times, bloated with self-love, and if you went through it tearing out all the stories which were dishonest or predictable, you’d be left with less than half the paper and if you then tore out all those which were devoid of human interest or meaning, you would end up with a very small newspaper indeed, certainly much smaller than the Big Issue.

One reason for this success is almost accidental. When it was launched three years ago, with money and inspiration from Gordon Roddick of the Body Shop, it was intended to help homeless people by providing them with a flexible, legal way of earning money. What no-one foresaw was the way in which those homeless people would, in turn, help the magazine by becoming one of the most efficient information networks in the country. Two thousand vendors amounts to two thousand freelance researchers all working away on the front line of life, picking up rumours, and sending back ideas, a street-level Reuters.

Another reason was forced upon it by financial constraint. Unable to afford to hire Fleet Street’s finest, the Big Issue gave work to eager young apprentices, straight out of local newspapers and journalism courses. They were naive and inexperienced – which was perfect. If you’re naive, you’re easily shocked, and if you’re easily shocked, you pick up quickly on new horrors (like taxmen and red-lining) and show a clean pair of heels to the Fleet Street lounge lizards with their carefully cultivated cynicism. And if you’re inexperienced, you enjoy the wonderful liberation of working without any formula. Never mind press releases and press conferences and the neurotic pursuit of other newspaper’s stories. Real news is simple to spot: if it’s interesting, it’s worth researching.

And in the middle of all this was John Bird, now aged 48, with a personal story that embodied the obsessions of his magazine, the survivor of what had been, in many ways, a horrible life.

Bird was the third of six boys in a family which was seriously poor and which hung on to a ledge in life in two bedrooms in a house full of similar families, all sharing two toilets and cooking out in the corridors. Then they got pushed off the ledge when his parents failed to pay the rent and they were all squeezed into a single room in his grandmother’s house in a mews near Paddington Station. Then they got pushed off that ledge as well when all the children were put into an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity in Mill Hill. Bird was seven when that happened.

“It tore the heart out of me. We were there three years. My brothers fitted in very well but I was a bit sensitive. I didn’t see my father all through that time and I saw my mother perhaps once a month. When I went in there, I could tell the time. When I came out, I couldn’t. It just threw me completely. I was always in trouble, always being beaten by the nuns. I really, really took it very hard. I hated my family. I hated everything.”

He emerged as a ten-year-old trouble-maker and spent the next 15 years running away, stealing anything he fancied, bouncing in and out of jail, sleeping rough and still hating just about everything, but along the way, he started to think. He locked on to Kerouac and Ginsberg and began to write his own ‘dodgy poems’, ran off to Paris to get away from the police and found himself in the bubbling cauldron of student rebellion, took up with a ‘haute couture revolutionary’ who taught him about Trotsky, and finally headed back to England with his personal struggle translated into political action.

He spent years in the most tightly disciplined and demanding revolutionary groups, the Socialist Labour League, and its heir, the Workers Revolutionary Party. He liked them because they hated everyone and everyone hated them. It was like belonging to a really exclusive club. He began working as a printer and when he left the WRP at the end of the 1970s, he turned his hand to writing and publishing. He told his friends he was a businessman, as if he had left his anger behind him, but almost everything he published went back to his roots, to the poverty and unfairness he had grown up with.

In 1991, he launched the Big Issue. Since then it has expanded out of London to Cardiff, Brighton, Bath, Bristol, Manchester and Scotland, and its sales have climbed to 200,000 a week. On Thursday, it moves into a new London distribution centre with a big bash and a speech from the Housing Minister, Sir George Young. It can be cack-handed, slap-dash, sentimental and corny but it is always looking for new kinds of trouble. And, if you think about it, that’s really the heart of good reporting.