If you do give a damn

31 March 2005

Paulina Olszanka talks to The Big Issue’s Martin Hughes

Is giving a damn obsolete? It may not have been explicitly stated but there’s an underlying current suggesting that perhaps dreams and passions are best left to ironic scorn over a bitter pill. With its text-book answers and mouse-click patience, the new generation of youth could be forgiven for being a nihilistic bunch. But that doesn’t mean that they want to be.

I speak to Martin Hughes, whose candid Irish fervour is responsible for a 30% increase in sales of the independent publication, The Big Issue, since he slid into the editor’s char one and a half years ago. The Big Issue, for those not familiar with the magazine, is sold by homeless or poverty-stricken vendors around the country. The cost of four dollars per issues, two dollars of which goes directly to the vendor, helps provide financial security for those selling it.

The Big Issue was set up in Britain by the benevolent Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop. It has sales of 9000 in Melbourne—which Martin says is easy to meet and is exponentially increasing. As an ex-food and ex-travel journalist, he not only found it an inspirational challenge but that it provided a calmness he also sought.

Over coffee on a bright Wednesday morning—the earliest I have risen in however long—Martin details his aspirations, frustrations and successes and the difficulties those working against the grain face.

What place do you think that indy media, or student media has in contemporary politics or issues?

It’s vital—especially in this day and age. It’s absolutely critical and I wish more people would support it, I mean magazines like Farrago and Arena. I was also really sorry to see Spinach 7 pause their publishing, although they really nailed it with their last issue. Also, RRR is such a fantastic radio station. The problem is they don’t get much support because the mainstream likes its bells and whistles and the glitz.

It’s very easy, isn’t it? All those bells and whistles.

See Arena is a great magazine but it doesn’t look terribly inviting. Spinach 7 was a great magazine that did look very inviting. So what we are trying to do with The Big Issue is produce a magazine that has broad appeal. I mean, critical success is no good to us; it’s no good having people say it’s a good magazine with no one buying it.

Because that doesn’t help the vendors.

Exactly. And see that’s the be all and end all of The Big Issue—it’s what is stopping us from being a great magazine. Because to be a great magazine you’d have to become very specific and target a niche, and be a great magazine for them [the niche]. We’d much prefer to be a good magazine that will have a broader range and broader target.

That’s what I was going to ask, because most indy media is seen as relatively left-wing or subscribes to a certain ideology. And I was wondering to what extent you have to compromise on that, if at all, so as to be accessible to more readers.

We don’t compromise on that. I mean Indy media is always being charged as left-wing lunatics. And I mean, well of course we’re political. First of all, we represent the most marginalised people in society; they’re not going to be too happy with the status quo so they want a change. But The Big Issue has existed in Australia since 1996—so for all that time there’s been a Liberal government. So if people say that we are either pro-Labor or anti-Liberal; it’s bullshit. We’re gonna have a go at the establishment whoever’s in power at the time. Our responsibility as a rare independent voice in the media is to challenge them and to hold a mirror up to them and to say ‘No, things aren’t as rosy as they seem…’

Do you think there is also a certain level of cynicism in the media at the moment? By having that cynicism they don’t corner themselves, in that they sort of keep themselves at a safe distance from anything. And that, perhaps, indy media commits to something a lot more.

The independent media certainly sticks its neck out whereas the commercial media is generally much more likely to be conservative and sit on the fence—trying to show two sides of the argument. And I mean there is something to be said for that, but I’d much prefer it if individual publications and the media would have definite voices. So, for example, the Herald Sun would be conservative and The Age would be more liberal. I mean, I guess it’s them trying to produce objective journalism—they try and give a balanced stories but it in their editorials they should have a definite line.

But don’t you think there’s little point in pretending that you can have objective journalism?

No, well that’s definitely an interesting argument. And I agree with you, I presume you’re saying there’s no point to it.

You’re saying that you try to keep The Big Issue from being niche-specific, yet at the same time you say that you wish mainstream media would stick out their necks and wear their hearts on their sleeves, as opposed to being wishy-washy and not committed to a particular ideology. How do you reconcile those two points?

Perhaps I am naïve but I don’t think people will necessarily turn off a magazine just because it has an editorial direction, especially if they can be convinced that the direction is motivated by selflessness rather than selfishness. I think we certainly wear our hearts on our sleeves…and nobody would suggest otherwise. When I spoke about [making the] magazine more inclusive and embracing, I meant in demographics not political ideology.

Do you see this generation of youth as being fairly complacent with a lack of drive or passion? Generally speaking, that is.

You can’t make broad sweeping statements like that. I think my generation always thinks the next generation is more complacent than we were. That’s all about getting older and changing the the perspective. I think yes possibly, I think also there are different pressures on the youth today.

It’s much more fragmented, isn’t it? For the most part, we’re sort of handed things on a silver platter and expected to choose, aren’t we?

I think you’ve put your finger on something there, I think that one of the problems is that for the youth today, and to a lesser extent when I was in college, is that it’s the ‘have-anything’ generation. You can have anything you want and that’s almost paralysing to think: ‘Oh, I can do anything, Jesus what am I going to do? I have so many options so what should I choose?’ Jesus, you feel like you’re gonna implode. That in itself is a pressure. But I remember walking up Collins St for the East Timor rally a few years ago. And the majority of them [the protesters] were young like you and me. That was awesome—that was really heartening.

Do you think, if it is the case, that this climate of complacency is foremost encouraged by the media and governments so that there is nothing there to challenge them?

…There’s no doubt about that. I don’t know if you took part in the S11 protest in 2000 but I remember Bracks was in a fairly new government then and the way they supported the heavy-handed actions of the police made me sick. It was legitimate dissent. Even James Wilkinson, the president of the World Bank, said that dissent around the world helped shape the policy of the World Bank. At the time there was no credit for it at all, it was given no legitimacy at all….

Do you think there is an element of ‘tall-poppy syndrome’ in Australia which further discourages people from committing to a passion or a cause?


So what do you think is more important: effective policies or grass-roots activism? Or a compromise between the two?

Co-operation between all people who want to see change. Definitely greater co-operation between like-minded people. Don’t let the corporate monopoly fragment the opposition. The way to do that is to support independent media. If you do give a damn, support independent media. Try and sponsor and alternative voice otherwise your opinions are not going to be represented, your ideals and ideas are going to be suppressed and ignored. I mean it’s so frustrating! In my case, I used to feel so angry and so helpless. I’d see injustice and selfishness around me that I couldn’t do anything. You feel helpless. But then by getting this job at The Big Issue, it’s changed. I feel like a bit of jack-of-all-trades by brining all my interests together and focus on trying to bring about change in one particular way. I think that sometimes, individually, we can feel quite disenfranchised. This made me a much calmer, much more focused person.

You’ve mentioned before that you’ve taken some actions of your own. Something about moving your bank account to another country when you’ve been unhappy with the goings-on in Australia.

Where’d you read that?

In one of your editorials.

Oh yeah, absolutely…

So what other actions have you taken?

You’ve got to complain. I’m a serial complainer. But I’m also the first to go and commend someone on good service. If my bank shits me, I will go and shut my bank account. I will put myself out only so that when they ask, ‘Why are you closing down your account?’, I can tell them. You have to complain. The only way to keep governments honest is to arc up. That’s one of the reasons that we have become complacent—the community has become so selfish.

As a final note, and I’m aware that this is incredibly clichéd, and I guess I only ask this because I feel it is relevant. Who, of those around you, inspires you the most?

Personally for me, those who have inspired me are the support workers of The Big Issue. They’re everything from a kind of mentor…counselor…psychologist…everything. Their patience is extraordinary; they are such good people.

And our next comer is George Negus. He was sacked from the ABC, a good thing for all of us because it means he will be on SBS Dateline. I think that’s where he’s best—bring the world to Australia. Australia is quite insular, it needs to find out what’s going on around the world. If it weren’t for people like George Negus, we’d be totally isolated here. He’s a pretty inspirational character—he’s not going to compromise on his way. For me he is that perfect Aussie bloke: a little bit of a larrikin, a genial intellectual. He’s in his sixties and is the only one from the 60 Minutes team who has integrity. But, I guess, the best thing that can be said about George is that he’s not Ray.

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