Thursday, May 25, 2006

At what age do you recognize and accept a calling in life? I have met a man whose experience suggests that you are never too old.

At what age do you recognize and accept a calling in life? I have met a man whose experience suggests that you are never too old. He wouldn’t describe himself as a Christian, at least not yet. But he is already, he confesses, a ‘lapsed agnostic’. Bill Porter is now 85 and for 15 years he has followed a star, the reform of the world’s media. ‘I have this inner compulsion,’ he says cheerfully. ‘It’s a wonderful thing to be given a sense of purpose that lasts you all your days.’

Porter is the founder and spark plug for the International Communications Forum (ICF), a loose network of professionals in all branches of the media who want to accept as much responsibility for the effect of their work on society as they do for its quality. His expressed aim is to build up a world-wide core of media men and women who believe in ethical values and apply them in their lives.

Porter describes the Forum as a conscience to conscience activity rather than an organization. To him the conscience is ‘a remarkable piece of high technology that is inside us, albeit often covered over with the compromises of a life time, but which enables us to choose right from wrong, truth from falsehood.’

Fifteen years ago, Porter concedes, his conscience had been covered over. After wartime service in the army he had risen to be chief executive of a large international academic and business publishing house but had never given thought to his responsibility for the wrongs in the world. He was happy to leave that to the politicians or even the clergy.

‘I was prepared to vote through dishonest accounts, to sanction deceitful promotions and to support products and policies that I knew to be wrong and not in the best interests of our employees and audiences. But I would complain about danger in our streets, theft from our homes, being pestered by drug addicts and beggars, and about the indiscipline of my children and others.’

When he was seventy and successful and ready for a comfortable retirement with his Jugoslav war hero wife, Sonja - they had been married nearly thirty years - he read that the mass media had become the largest industry in the world and asked himself whether it was the most responsible. This caused him to rethink his own motivations which had been limited to making money and becoming important. Porter talked over this new found conviction about the state of the media with Sonja. Her response, ‘If you are thinking that way, why don’t you do something about it.’* Within a few weeks Sonja had died of hepatitis but her challenge lived with him.

He told a few friends of his ‘inner compulsion’ to bring a new thinking to the media. To his surprise they were not dismissive but rather encouraged him. And so began the ICF which has now held conferences on four continents and has involved more than 2,500 media people in 116 countries. Its Sarajevo Principles, formulated at a conference in Bosnia in 2000, have been described as ‘a document of historic importance’ by Jay Rosen, the ‘father of community journalism’. Signatories agree to undertake to demonstrate in their own lives the values that they hope for, and often demand, in others. They are committed to confronting hypocrisy, oppression, exploitation and evil, firstly by their own clarity and straightness and then through the means by which they reach their audiences.

A profile in Australia’s leading daily ‘The Age’, concludes, ‘Porter is a modest man of remarkable candor and genial humor. His life is something of a puzzle to him. He wasn’t born into a religious family and for most of his working life the principles that he is now advocating lay dormant within him. He is not sure whether he is a spiritual person, but he does know his strong, purposeful wife is part of what he is now doing.’

Porter has sometimes been asked how he would have lived his life if the ICF had not happened. He usually responds, ‘Playing golf and bridge, going on cruises and chasing comely widows.’ Why him? ‘I do not know the answer to that question, but I do know that 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?’

He regards the last fifteen years as the most satisfying and effective time of his life. Each morning he seeks to discover what he can do ‘progress the forces of good’. ‘Everyone can have that experience,’ he told me, ‘and as more of us do then we shall build a world where poverty is history, justice is universal and peace is permanent.’

* Bill Porter’s autobiography is called Do Something About It - a Media Man’s Story

International Communications Website:

This article first appeared on the website: in September/October 2006