Bill Porter: Publisher and media ethics campaigner

While many retired business executives might take to the golf course or join bridge parties, Bill Porter found his life taking off in an altogether different direction. He was already 70, and with a lifetime's career in journalism and publishing behind him, when he launched the International Communications Forum, a global media ethics campaign, in 1990.

He founded ICF out of his passionate concern about the media's influence on society for good or ill – and a conviction that he had been too often motivated by personal success and the bottom line. He chaired ICF for the next 14 years, as it gained a global following of over 2,500 media professionals from 116 countries. In many ways, the ICF was for Porter the crowning fulfilment of a distinguished publishing career.

Porter had founded the British arm of the Dutch legal publishing multinational Kluwer in 1970, heading its expansion into Britain as managing director of Kluwer Publishing. It eventually widened into 14 companies and imprints and in 1984 he was appointed deputy chairman of Kluwer UK.

Elected as chairman of the Law Panel of the Publishers Association in 1985, he supported Salman Rushdie's freedom of expression during the furore surrounding The Satanic Verses. But the panel also urged publishers to be more careful in the future. Porter agreed with Zaki Badawi, then chairman of the Imams and Mosques Council of Britain, who said he would not oppose Rushdie's book if some pages were expressed in more moderate language. Had senior executives at Rushdie's publishers taken heed, the whole affair might never have arisen, Porter believed.

It was issues like this that led Porter to launch ICF, three years after his retirement. Another impetus was an article in the Financial Times stating that communications was the largest industry in the world. Yes, Porter reflected, but are we the most responsible?

"If you are thinking that way," his Yugoslav wife, Sonja asked, "then why don't you do something about it?" Three weeks later, Sonja died tragically young due to undiagnosed hepatitis, and this also spurred Porter to act in her memory. Do Something About It! (2005) became the title of his autobiography.

ICF was launched in Caux, Switzerland in 1991 and has since held nearly 30 conferences at venues around the world. Professor Rajmohan Gandhi of the University of Illinois wrote that Porter "loved the media but demanded high standards from it... with such charm that editors the world over thanked him for his pressure."

The ICF is most noted for its Sarajevo Commitment, a statement of best practice which media professionals are encouraged to sign. It was launched in 2000, after a Bosnian Muslim radio journalist invited Porter to organise an ICF event in the Bosnian capital. Senad Kamenica had been incensed by the reporting bias of local Bosnian Serb and Croat journalists, which had whipped up ethnic tensions before the outbreak of the Balkans war of 1992-95.

The document, translated into 17 languages, has made a considerable impact. Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, compared it with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The former BBC newsreader Martyn Lewis became another keen advocate, while the Times columnist Magnus Linklater now chairs ICF's British chapter. Others were more sceptical about its overt idealism. But Roger Parkinson, president of the World Association of Newspapers, said that the ICF "had put the issue of the effects of the media on society on the global agenda".

Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent, wrote: "Bill Porter was an inspirational figure and the moving spirit behind the Sarajevo Commitment of September 2000, which set out a much-needed declaration of principles for journalists. It was in that city during the Bosnian War that we came to understand that we did not just reflect, but affect, the world around us. We had responsibilities as well as rights. The Sarajevo Commitment is the best statement of those realities that I know."

Porter was always keen to avoid calls for censorship, but liked to describe the ICF as a "conscience-to-conscience" activity. Media professionals were encouraged to exchange experiences and reflect for themselves on the balance between freedom and responsibility in the media. The conscience, Porter maintained, was the best guide to professional responsibility. "[It is] that remarkable piece of high technology that is inside us," he said, "albeit often covered over with the compromises of a lifetime, but which enables us to choose right from wrong, truth from falsehood."

Bill Porter was born on a farm in East Anglia in 1920 and grew up in Lancashire. At Liverpool University 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 a lieutenant during the Second World War, in North Africa, Italy and India, where he was a signals officer with the 17th Indian Infantry brigade.

After the war, Porter worked for a spell with the Moral Re-Armament movement, but broke with it over a disagreement about aims and tactics. But he also admitted that he found MRA's emphasis on sexual morality "very restrictive – I was looking forward to my freedom in that respect." Peter Howard, a Beaverbrook columnist who became MRA's leader, told Porter: "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 Howard's vision for Porter was realised through the ICF.

Porter spent three years as a freelance journalist, reporting on Tito's Yugoslavia. His city guide and interpreter in the Croatian port of Rijeka 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 wrote. They were married in 1962.

Porter brought Sonja to London, where he became the marketing director for John Grant's Eurobooks Ltd. This involved travelling to bookshops and universities all over Europe. When Grant gave Porter the sack, largely over a misunderstanding, he was taken on by Kluwer.

Large, bluff and jovial, Porter described himself, on his journey towards a faith, as a "lapsed agnostic". Reflecting on the ICF he said, "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?"



William Erasmus Porter, publisher and campaigner: born Chapel, Essex 21 July 1920; married 1962 Sonja Aleksic (one son, one daughter); died Le Touquet, France 1 April 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Disruption at Waterloo after a person was hit by a train
newsCancellations and disrupted service after person hit by train
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The almost deserted Liverpool Echo Arena on Monday
tvCan X Factor last in the face of plummeting numbers auditioning
News
Kirsty Bertarelli is launching a singing career with an album of songs detailing her observations of “real life”
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence