Volume 18 Number 5
The Man Who Set Out to Change the Media
01 October 2005
Bill Porter founded a global think-tank out of his concern about the media’s influence. Michael Smith tells his story.
If you are thinking that way, why don’t you do something about it?’ The words, spoken to publishing executive Bill Porter by his wife Sonja, remained ringing in his ears. When she died unexpectedly three weeks later, they came back to him with the force of a command. They were a trigger, he says, to ‘do something’ about the influence of the media.
The first trigger, which prompted the talk with his wife, was reading an article in the Financial Times that year, 1990. The communications industry including the mass media had become the largest industry in the world, it said. That might be so, Porter thought to himself. But was it responsible for its output? Did it always consider its moral impact on its audiences? The answer, he thought, had to be no. It was not just the sex, sleaze and scandal in the media that worried him, but rather a conviction that the media had a crucial role in building a free and just society, yet rarely turned the searchlight on itself.
Porter admitted to himself that his motivation, as the chief executive of a large academic and business publishing house in London, ‘had been primarily to make money and to become important, both for my company and myself’. And while these were not wholly bad motives, ‘they lacked the balancing element of responsibility’. With some trepidation—‘not wishing to be rejected or laughed at’—he approached colleagues in the publishing world and found in some of his friends a similar degree of concern about the media.
Porter launched the International Communications Forum (ICF) in 1991, with a first conference at the IofC centre in Caux. The aim was to ‘build up a worldwide network of men and women in the media who believed in ethical values and applied them in their lives’. They would be responsible for the honesty of their output. It would be a ‘conscience-to-conscience activity’ rather than an organization.
The conscience, says Porter, is the best guide to professional responsibility. He describes it as ‘that remarkable piece of high technology that is inside us, albeit often covered over with the compromises of a lifetime, but which enables us to chose right from wrong, truth from falsehood’. As the British journalist and feature writer Graham Turner put it at that first gathering: ‘If we are blowing the whistle on others, let us make sure our own whistles are clean.’
Since then the ICF has held 27 conferences around the world, involving over 2,500 media professionals from 114 countries. A marking moment was a forum in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo in 2000, held at the instigation of Bosnian TV journalist Senad Kamenica, who had been deeply disturbed by the bias in local media reporting. He said that journalists had contributed to ethnic tensions and so had been more responsible for deaths than weapons had during the Balkans conflict.
The conference saw the launch of the Sarajevo Commitment, a statement of professional and ethical practice which journalists are encouraged to sign. It is nothing if not inspirational: ‘We shall combine freedom with responsibility, talent with humility, privilege with service, comfort with sacrifice and concern with courage,’ it reads in part. ‘We realize that change in society begins with change in ourselves.’
INFLUENCE OF MEDIA
Jay Rosen, Professor of Journalism at New York University and the father of ‘community journalism’, described the Sarajevo Commitment as ‘a document of historic importance’ and compared it with the Gettysburg Address and the UN Charter of Human Rights. He would use it with all his students, he said.
Martyn Lewis, the former BBC TV news anchorman, was equally enthusiastic. It has since been translated into 17 languages. Roger Parkinson, President of the World Association of Newspapers, commented that the ICF ‘had put the issue of the effects of the media on society on the global agenda’.
Bill Porter came to his conviction about the influence of the media, for good or ill, out of his own journalistic and publishing background. Born in 1920, on a farm in an East Anglian village, he grew up in Lancashire. At university in Liverpool, his search for a spiritual base in life was ‘backed into second place by my devotion to worldly success and pretty girls’. He served as an army lieutenant during World War II, in North Africa, Italy and India, which led to ‘a lifetime love of India and its peoples’.
After the war, Porter was about to take up a job with a regional British daily paper when a distant cousin from Lancashire, involved in the post-war reconciliation work of Moral Re-Armament (MRA, now Initiatives of Change), persuaded him to write press releases and news reports for MRA. This also involved him in MRA’s work to improve industrial relations, particularly in the French textile industry. He became a close friend of Maurice Mercier, a former militant communist and a leader of the wartime French resistance, who helped to found France’s democratic trade union movement Force Ouvrière. He found in MRA ‘a more complete and satisfying revolution than communism’.
Porter’s work with MRA took him back to India for four years, 1955 to 1959, where he also freelanced for such newspapers as The Scotsman, the Indian Express and the International Labor News Service in the USA.
Returning to Europe, he broke his involvement with MRA over a disagreement about aims and tactics, and what he regarded as too narrow objectives. But he also admits, in his autobiography Do something about it—a media man's story (John Faber with Caux Books 2005), that he found MRA’s emphasis on sexual morality ‘very restrictive, and I was looking forward to my freedom in that respect’. Peter Howard, MRA’s leader at the time who had been an influential newspaper columnist, told him: ‘You are meant to be a mighty tree, under whose branches many people can find shelter and purpose’. It was to be 35 years before Porter revisited the MRA centre in Caux and Howard’s vision for him began to be fulfilled.
Porter spent the next three years as a freelance journalist. This took him to report on Tito’s Yugoslavia, where he ended up in Rijeka, a key port on the Croatian coast. His city guide and interpreter was an attractive red-haired woman, Sonja Aleksic. ‘My priorities steadily shifted away from the pursuit of the story to the pursuit of the lady,’ Porter recalls. They married in 1962.
Sonja’s Bosnian mother came from an aristocratic background, while her father, a colonel, was Montenegrin. Sonja herself was made of stern stuff having been twice sentenced to death in her late teens and early 20s, first under the occupying Nazis, and then under the Yugoslav communist regime for being ‘an enemy of the people’. So accused, she prepared herself for nine nights running to face death by firing squad. On the tenth morning she was suddenly released, thanks, she believed, to the influence of a Jewish friend who was an official in the Belgrade city government.
These traumatic experiences gave her a fierce independence of spirit. ‘To survive such an experience without bitterness, to keep an open heart and a positive and cheerful outlook is a triumph of the human spirit,’ writes Porter, who describes his nearly 30 years with Sonja as ‘the deepest experience of my life’.
Porter brought his new bride to London, where he became the Marketing Director for John Grant’s Eurobooks Ltd, travelling to bookshops and university libraries all over Europe. But when Grant gave Porter the sack, largely over a misunderstanding, it led to a fortunate break.
Porter, then nearly 50, was taken on by Kluwer, Europe’s largest law publisher based in the Netherlands. Porter headed their expansion into Britain as Managing Director of Kluwer Publishing, which eventually widened into 14 sister companies and imprints. In 1984 Porter became Deputy Chairman of Kluwer UK. The following year he was appointed Chairman of the Law Panel of the (UK) Publishers Association.
Three years after leaving Kluwer he founded the ICF. He marked his 85th birthday at the 27th ICF conference in Caux last July. Not everyone can say, as he does, that the 15 most fulfilling years of their lives began at 70. The tragic death of his wife, through undiagnosed hepatitis, had been the spur. But Porter, who likes to describe himself as a ‘lapsed agnostic’, also adds: ‘When I decided to take this road, I experienced a sense of inner compulsion that has never left me. Where does it come from, if not from some superior guiding force in the universe?’