Monday, 25 January 2010
The Bigger Issue
We have a few problems with The Big Issue magazine. It is sold with the slogan 'a help up, not a hand out', but just how true is this? For anyone unfamiliar with this magazine, The Big Issue is a magazine started by John A. Bird which is distributed by the homeless and hostel dwellers. The homeless take a cut of about 50-60p per issue, the rest of the money going into The Big Issue Trust for the running of the magazine and any projects the company want to operate. It has a good reputation but there are a few obvious problems with it.
Firstly, we don't know anyone who buys the magazine because they are loyal to the magazine, or because they thoroughly enjoy reading it. It doesn't make you laugh, its tediously written and we don't know anybody who likes it. Our experience of buying the Big Issue is that motive for buying it is charity, not interest in the magazine which is usually dull, uninteresting and irritating to read. We know that many people give a bit of money to the vendor and tell them to keep the magazine, so they obviously feel the same as we do.
Secondly, it is sold as a 'help up'. There is dignity in working, selling a magazine on the street, so it isn't a 'hand out'. This is how it is sold. But, the reality is a bit different. Big Issue vendors stand, often for hours in a day, often in rain, wind, snow, sleet, calling out 'Big Issue' to members of the public and waiting, hoping that someone will buy it. The amount of money the vendors make depends on how long they work. Having met a couple of vendors I know that they often work 10-12 hours a day, if not more.
It is not a guaranteed income and so they could stand there all day, make next to nothing and walk back to a hostel with change in their pocket. This is not dignity in work, this is tantamount to slavery. Meanwhile, the owner of The Big Issue, who professes to having been on the streets himself, having got off drugs and drink and become a successful social entrepreneur is rolling in it. Meanwhile, also, The Big Issue makes money from advertising, the rest of the cost price of the magazine and pays its writing, editorial and sales/marketing team substantial wages for producing the publication every week. This is how a good idea can go wrong. Those who sell the issue, in real terms, make peanuts, pittance out of selling it, nothing like a living wage, while the writers and workers and the owner make a lot of money.
This central injustice also affects the content of the magazine because it is true to say that the majority of the writers and editorial team have never experienced homelessness or had drug or drink problems which are often experienced by the homeless. At worse, The Big Issue makes slaves of the homeless and vulnerable who sell it, while writers and editors and the owner have the kind of salary of which the homeless can only dream. It is not a 'help up'. It isn't even much of a 'hand out'. A good magazine which addresses homelessness would be one which was written, produced and owned by the homeless and the marginalised, where their voices were heard instead of used to shout out 'Big Issue!' on street corners everyday in the rain, sun or snow, because frankly, a magazine written by the homeless would be better than The Big Issue, more interesting, probably funnier and more truthful than what is being presented at the moment.
Laurence England & George Horvath
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