What Working on a Magazine Sold by the Homeless Taught Me About Journalism

In its heyday, on a tiny budget, the 'Big Issue' became an eye into Britain's soul.

by Max Daly
Oct 24 2016, 4:25pm

Founder John Bird with one of the first vendors to sell the magazine

Founder John Bird with one of the first vendors to sell the magazine

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Last week, the Big Issue celebrated its 25th anniversary—not bad for a magazine that started life in 1991 as a hastily thrown-together monthly with the peculiar idea of being sold entirely by homeless people.

Since it was dreamed up by former homeless young offender Sir John Bird, who admits he's probably the first shoplifter and car thief to take a seat in the House of Lords, the magazine has helped hundreds of its vendors pull themselves up from the streets and on to better lives.

But in the current era of sausage factory journalism, and the total dominance of the print newspaper market by pernicious right-wing tabloids and their pack of eager, automaton newshounds, the story of this maverick publication needs telling. Of how, in its heyday, on a tiny budget, it became an eye into Britain's soul and should stand as an important lesson for today's hamstrung media.

I admit I'm not an unbiased observer. Straight out of two years as a hack on local newspapers in the grubbier side of northwest London, I worked on the Big Issue's news team between 1997 and 2002. My job was getting the scoops that would be picked up by the national papers, getting the magazine some good publicity in the process.

We were journalistic underdogs. At its height, we had 12 journalists, compared to the hundreds working on each national paper. Our budget was minimal, and our wages weren't great. Most outsiders presumed we were homeless and worked for free. Or maybe that was just the way I looked at the time.

Since its inception, though, it's been a lesson for the mainstream press, then and now, on how to do agenda-setting journalism with a passionate bunch of hacks on a tight budget. In the early days, much of this was done with just a fax machine and a landline, as emails didn't happen at the Big Issue until about 2000.

The magazine was a diamond in the rough because, backed to the hilt by long-term editor Matthew Collin, we exposed New Labour's Britain like no other publication. Our journalists stepped outside the well-trodden zones to listen to the sound of the street—to give a voice to those who had none, and fight for those who other newspapers didn't give a fuck about.

It wasn't exactly hard to feel connected to the disenfranchised. There can't have been too many magazines with a ground floor that was full of homeless vendors having fried egg sandwiches and grabbing fresh copies to sell.

What's more, unluckily for the vendors trying to escape addictions, our office was slap bang in the middle of what was Britain's busiest crack- and heroin-selling thoroughfare in Kings Cross. It was also a red light district. Grabbing a morning coffee from outside meant running a gauntlet of dealers offering "brown," "white," and sex workers offering "a quid a lick"—all before 10 AM. The underbelly of New Labour's shiny new project was in our faces every day.

It was easy for us to engage in the ancient journalistic ritual of talking face-to-face with actual people, rather than stay glued to our cheap office chairs. Every week, for example, for the Street Diary column, I sat down and interviewed a different Big Issue vendor about his or her life. What surprised me was that every single one of them, behind the stress and chaos, was a sweet person with a fascinating and usually tragic story to tell. Personally, doing this and the crime and drugs stories in which I specialized gave me a massive insight into a hidden world and into the best way of gathering information—from the horse's mouth.

This was no ivory tower journalism, and it was always good fun to hear about the national newspaper journalists buying drugs "undercover" while the dealers and sex workers spun them ridiculous yarns because they could spot them a mile off.

Not long after joining the mag, I slept alongside rough sleepers during a spate of attacks where homeless people were set on fire, to look at how they were protecting themselves. As it happens, I did get punched in the head, but it was actually by one of the homeless men who thought I was chatting up his girlfriend, which I wasn't.

The cover of the first edition

As the anti-globalization movement loomed over Britain in the late 90s to cause havoc and make the basic point that we were getting rolled over by the big corporations, we were in the thick of it. Our journalists were embedded in the movement that set up the biggest anti-City riots in modern times. We managed to get the inside story from one of the world's most secretive and elite meetings, the Bilderberg Group. And we knew whenever Banksy was going to do a new job, because he told us. The Big Issue was the first to write about GM crops.

"We punched well above our weight when it came to exposing big-name companies and organizations that treated people badly," says Jane Cassidy, a former news editor at the Big Issue. "We earned a reputation for taking on investigations that the mainstream press didn't have the guts to publish. This meant that whistleblowers regularly contacted us with scoops, which were then followed up by the national media."

Perhaps the most famous Big Issue scoop was Lambeth police commander Brian Paddick declaring his affection for anarchism to us. Obviously it didn't take long for the right-wing press to weigh in, but his brave move opened the door for others in the force to express themselves more honestly.

Our investigations and campaigns won awards, changed government policy, and exposed miscarriages of justice, from scrapping the humiliating asylum seeker voucher scheme to mixed sex mental health wards and pauper's graves. "From Cradle to Grave," an in-depth six-part series of articles, involved journalists traveling around Britain looking at why so many people were locked into poverty from their first breath to their last.

"The Big Issue had a news team that had the freedom and time to investigate stories that were beneath the radar of desk jockeys holed up in Canary Wharf," says Gibby Zobel, former news editor at the Big Issue. "We proved you didn't need huge investment to break national stories.

"While the mainstream all ran toward the sound of the guns, we scoured around the vast areas they neglected. No reliance on wires, press releases, or even the internet. Just good honest journalism with a conscience, and doing the foot-soldier work of mining primary source material. There's precious few foot soldiers these days, and so news has become an online echo chamber of itself."

Today, the magazine is still doing good, original stuff, and it's far from being a pity read. But since 2002, when it lost the bulk of its journalists for economic reasons, it's not been able to put so much effort into the investigative stories that made its name as an agenda-setter. The same can be said of most newspapers.

However, the Big Issue diaspora is everywhere, still sniffing, digging, and fighting. Its former journalists have generally kept on the same path in different necks of the wood, turning the stones that may otherwise be left unturned, and have gone on to become well-known names in the field.

Tragically the most talented of the ex–Big Issue posse is dead. Tim Hetherington, who worked at the Big Issue in the late 90s before he became a world-renowned war photojournalist, was killed by a mortar blast in Libya in 2011. It was two months after he attended the Oscars, where his film Restrepo, about life for a squad of soldiers on the front lines in Afghanistan, was nominated for Best Documentary.

Yet the Big Issue DNA is still about, in spirit and in person. Certainly its influence is in VICE, which I write for now. It's no coincidence, for example, that VICE's co-president Andrew Creighton used to sell advertising space in the Big Issue in the mid 90s. He played a major role in turning VICE from a Canadian skateboard mag into a global media player with a social conscience.

Now, in Brexit Britain, where the gap between rich and poor is widening at a lethal rate, we need all the good, independent journalism that is unafraid to stick up for the underclass and the scapegoats that we can get. There isn't a lot of it about.

John Bird used the magazine's anniversary to promise that he would use his seat in the Lords to fight child neglect—which he sees as being the major driver of Britain's "undemocratic" poverty crisis. But the anniversary should also be a reminder that without journalism that holds Big Business and government to account, those in Britain in need of most help will just be screaming into the dark.

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