Big Issue doesn't stand out in a crowd, admits founder

John Bird tells Nina Lakhani why his 20-year-old magazine is being revamped
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The Independent Online

Celebrating its 20th birthday this Thursday, The Big Issue is undoubtedly one of Britain's most successful social enterprises, and magazines. But its vendors have seen a significant drop in sales since last month's riots – of between 7 and 10 per cent – and its founder, John Bird, agrees with some critics that the publication has lost its edge and feels a bit tired.

"Back in the early Nineties we were the new kids on the block so everyone was buying the paper," says Mr Bird, ahead of a relaunch next month. "Now, we are among a number of street manifestations: there's chuggers ("charity muggers") , all those free magazines, a big return of begging. We're not as exciting as we used to be. Which is why we are trying to refer the whole thing, make it more buzzy.

"It's a real struggle producing a magazine that's fresh and we now desperately need reinvention. Desperately."

A new London edition launches in October which will be followed by more locally driven Big Issues across the UK. Around 100 vendors (out of the total of 3,000) will be trained as journalists, rented smart phones, and set up with blogs, for which they'll be paid £100 a month as local Big Issue reporters. Bird wants a more self-help focus in the publication, but has yet to convince his editorial team.

Following the sales drop-off he wants vendors to apply for compensation through the government scheme set up to help affected businesses. "The riots hit us tremendously. We had to remove the vendors for a few days but even now, people are not so happy on the streets, they feel more threatening to older people so they're rushing home. It was like this, but worse, after 9/11."

While eager to condemn the public sector strikes ("absolute shit"), he is more circumspect about the rioters. "I did warn Blair and Cameron and Brown that if you have a whole group of people who have no role in life apart from to be young, in the end, some of them are going to turn against you and bite you because the devil makes work for idle hands." He criticises proposals to punish rioters and their families by taking away benefits as "political spitefulness", driven by ministers who didn't enjoy feeling politically and socially impotent.

He says his relationship with Gordon Roddick, the co-founder and financial backer of The Big Issue, has suffered since wife Anita Roddick's death four years ago. Mr Bird first met Mr Roddick in Edinburgh in the late 1960s, having fled there to escape the police who were pursuing him for benefit fraud. He describes Anita Roddick as "the most splendid, mad, creative woman I ever met".

Born in West London in 1946 to poor Irish immigrants, Mr Bird first became homeless at the age of five. He spent three years in an orphanage from the age of seven, was excluded from school, and spent several spells in prison in his teens and 20s where he learnt reading, writing and the basics of printing. He went to art school for a year in 1964, dropping out after his girlfriend became pregnant with his first child.

Now in his third marriage, to Praveen, a former television presenter 24 years his junior, Bird is a father-of-five, with children aged between four and 45. He is officially no longer a Londoner, living in Cambridge, where he is organised by his wife and assistant.

His first art exhibition opens in London next week, 47 years after he went to art school. He drew each piece for "Arses, Grasses and Trees" on an iPad and is eager to stress his technological know-how, although this doesn't extend to working his phone.

Bird hits back at recent criticism about the rise in Romanians selling the magazine, who now make up nearly 30 per cent of vendors. "Romanians are probably some of the hardest working people in Britain right now, but they are half-citizens, so they have some rights but not many, which opens the gate to all sorts of illegal practices and abuse."

He adds: "We know some of them are on the fiddle and we know we work with some horrible people but we don't hide things and we work with the police, with the Borders Agency, but Big Issue is an open system, like the NHS, which makes it open to abuse."

He sums himself up: "I am a self appointed grandee of the poor. I am one of them who got out and got into a position to help, so I will mollycoddle Lord Mandleson, Cameron, Blair, and Brown, anyone if it helps."

He remains refreshingly critical about the magazine: "I don't want to read The Big Issue and read how miserable it is living under capitalism. I want to know what you're going to do about it, how you going to dismantle it.

"If you condemn the bankers or the Government without finding a solution, then all you are doing is defining yourself by the failures of others... That's why 20 years ago I invented the Big Society. I didn't want to wait for the Government, I wanted the local community to take responsibility."