Opinion

Paul McNamee: Why The Big Issue works. And why it matters

As the magazine turns 25+1, it has been built on memory, on fearlessness and vision. The idea shouldn’t work. But it does

The Big Issue is not like any other magazine or business. You start by detailing the rubrics and before too long you feel like you’re explaining gravity.

It has been built on memory, on fearlessness and vision. The Big Issue shouldn’t work. But it does.

What company would choose to deny itself half its income at point of sale? Yet, at the core, that’s why we exist. Our vendors, the men and women who use The Big Issue as their means to make a living, to work their way back into society, come through the door and pay for every single magazine they are going to sell to you. They pay £1.25, half the cover price. The difference is their income. From there, everything flows.

I am proud of this magazine and ALL our associated parts, of our buccaneering outsider spirit, our campaigning zeal, our chin-out voice for the voiceless, our move to prevention thinking as the model for government

The figures are staggering. Over 200 million magazine sales in Britain since the beginning in 1991.

Some £120 million earned by the poorest in society. We’re not a charity. We do not get government handouts. We offer the poorest a hand-up.

Certain memories are hardwired. George Michael, for instance, is a kind of shibboleth. His name a shorthand for a generosity of time and spirit, a generosity that guaranteed sales and therefore a huge boost to those making their living selling The Big Issue. George came to The Big Issue two decades ago, being honest and open. At the time, he had brought the curtain down and was speaking to nobody else. A great man, he trusted us and he supported our vendors and each return in the intervening years delivered the same lift. His premature death at Christmas was keenly felt. We will not forget.

There are other pillars upon which things rest – The Stone Roses return cover; Oasis name-checking us in Supersonic; the international expansion to plant street papers across the globe;  Streetcat Bob and James; the launch of Big Issue Foundation, the charitable arm of the business; the Big Issue Shop opening; the launch of Big Issue Invest, the social investment arm offering business solutions to society’s problems and how that has led to the Creditworthiness Assessment Bill that John Bird is currently wrestling through parliament.

John Bird. Our founder, the beating heart and North Star. John is a man who, on entering a room, makes you wonder if there was actually a door there in the first place.

John Bird in 1991, as the first edition of The Big Issue went on sale

And then he fills the space, loudly usually, and people are drawn to him and things happen. At each moment of change, of development, he has encouraged and challenged, pushed The Big Issue to fearlessly move and see what is up and over and beyond the rise in the road. To be the thing that it can. His own life in many ways a blueprint for The Big Issue, from poverty to changing government policy in the House of Lords. That’s quite something, isn’t it?

The Big Issue started with a single magazine in 1991, a simple means of getting to grips with the spiralling mass of rough sleeping in London. And it has grown to be an unstoppable force. Vendors, in their incredible and fearless way, get up and get out and work, facing a public that can sometimes be antagonistic but, thankfully, more frequently, is welcoming, that puts these men and women in the middle of communities, vital parts – visible, essential.

This week John Bird moves again and looks further, a tea-towel to save the world. It sounds crazy, overly ambitious. But that was said when the first edition hit the streets 26 years ago (or 25+1 as John has it). And look what happened to that.

I am proud of this magazine and ALL our associated parts, of our buccaneering outsider spirit, our campaigning zeal, our chin-out voice for the voiceless, our move to prevention thinking as the model for government. I am proud to be able to work with the many people who put it together and get it distributed (the unsung heroes in the distribution team are an incredible force all of their own). And, of course, proud of those who sell it. The Big Issue is a remarkable thing.

I thank you, our readers, who stay with us and tell us so much about the world in which we find ourselves. I’m proud that every week we change lives. At a time of uncertainty, we offer hope.

On we go.

Paul McNamee is Editor of The Big Issue; BSME British editor of the year 2016

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