'The Big Issue' enjoys big Christmas success

Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne have featured in recent editions

Ian Burrell
Monday 05 January 2015 15:47 GMT
An interview with Benedict Cumberbatch was a recent coup for 'The Big Issue'
An interview with Benedict Cumberbatch was a recent coup for 'The Big Issue' (AFP/Getty )

The Christmas double-edition of The Big Issue is set to register an extraordinary sale of some 290,000.

It’s testimony to the hard work of editor Paul McNamee and his staff that a print title can be so doughty – especially in the face of a political and media debate that relentlessly questions the integrity of the poor.

The Big Issue has had a difficult year in which Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has highlighted its large numbers of Roma vendors and accused the magazine of encouraging “benefit tourism”.

The fact that The Big Issue’s Christmas sales are up year-on-year says much about the generous spirit of the British public. The regular weekly circulation is a respectable 82,000.

McNamee, who tells me the number of Roma sellers is falling as more use the “stepping stone” of the magazine to find other work, has created a very readable product. Michael Gambon is the next cover star interview, following recent coups such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne.

The Big Issue does not buy syndicated interviews – it enjoys exceptional access due to its work for the homeless and poor. And its “Letter to My Younger Self” column, in which Buzz Aldrin and John Cleese have featured, seems to be admired by celebrities for its cathartic qualities.

But McNamee is keen to dispel the widely-held view that it is a worthy publication that is “wet [and] to the left”.

The Big Issue is “not politically-aligned” he says, and takes its lead in challenging all authority from its “contrarian” proprietor John Bird. Since becoming editor three years ago (when the magazine consolidated to a single British edition, produced mainly in Glasgow), McNamee has revised the roster of columnists. He admits that some might find it “a little bizarre” that Rachel Johnson, the former editor of The Lady, has a column. As might that of the former Vogue journalist and novelist Polly Devlin. The magazine has hired a Business Editor in Dominic Laurie.

But The Big Issue faces challenges. A bitter-sweet consequence of the rise of the homeless charity sector, which it has helped nurture, is that its army of vendors is diminishing. Social media is vital in educating a young generation who are reluctant to pay for print.

McNamee also wants to facilitate sales by card readers. “A big problem for us is the cashless society.” He is referring not to The Big Issue sellers but their buyers.

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