Media Profile: Taking issue with social chaos - John Bird, editor-in-chief, the Big Issue

The Big Issue is one of the surprise success stories of the 1990s.

The Big Issue is one of the surprise success stories of the


At its launch in September 1991, you couldn’t move for detractors

predicting its imminent demise or questioning its laudable aims.

Nearly six years on, the company is launching its first national

advertising campaign which emphasises the magazine’s funky content

rather than charitable aims. It made headline news with its interview

with Tony Blair. And Becky Gardiner from the Independent on Sunday will

be taking over from Joanne Mallabar as editor in the next few months.

It’s all going very well and it’s all down to the maverick guidance of

editor-in-chief John Bird.

’It’s not bad for someone whose last proper job was as a controller at a

mini-cab firm,’ Bird says. ’That’s part of what makes this magazine

different. We’re not just cool observers of this social chaos, we are

part of it. I don’t want us to be seen as this bunch of liberals next

door to the Guardian. When we set up, we were about radical writing, but

in a way that had never happened before. We were about standing up for


To some extent, the title is changing now and Bird wants to make sure

that it changes in the right way. He welcomes the increased sales that

exclusive interviews with George Michael and the Stone Roses have given

the title and hopes that sort of story will continue. He’s also happy

with the bigger name writers - like Sheryl Garret, former editor of the

Face - but is worried about becoming too mainstream.

’When we started we were the kind of place where young writers could

break their first stories and to an extent that feeling has gone,’ he

says. ’I’d like to bring it back because I love the idea that people get

their first break from a homeless magazine. There’s one journalist on

the Observer now who was selling apples in Richmond before he met


Bird says Gardiner will introduce a number of ’new elements’ and ’take

the next leap forward’ but exact changes will be discussed on her


These changes will not be just in terms of magazine content. the Big

Issue team are learning TV production skills as the organisation

prepares to expand into documentary and drama production. The company

has already pitched ideas for a late night youth entertainment slot to

Carlton, LWT and various satellite stations. And it hopes to film a

vendor trip to Egypt.

’You have to be quite ruthless if your organisation is about making

money, and that’s what the Big Issue is about,’ he says. ’I was never a

part of that co-operative movement that wouldn’t make harsh commercial


In many ways, I see companies like the Big Issue as the engine for

change as the turn of the Millennium comes around. We are seeking change

but we know there has to be some leadership.’

Bird also believes the magazine has begun to become complacent. ’We have

to be our own strongest critics and we’re not quite as harsh as we could

be,’ he admits. ’Sometimes I think it’s a pile of shit. If we are to

keep exposing bad practice in society we have to be able to expose bad

practice in ourselves. I suppose that’s the best way of describing my

role as editor-in- chief. I make sure the magazine sticks to it’s



1988: Writer and printer for London free magazines

1990: Controller, mini-cab firm

1991: Editor, the Big Issue

1995: Editor-in-chief, the Big Issue.

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