A crusader urges the media to raise morals

From his home in France, William Porter travels 200 days out of the year, a sort of Johnny Appleseed of international journalism. He tries to plant seeds of responsibility in media everywhere so they will cut back on the infotainment and negativism.

"Reach higher," implores Mr. Porter, one of the founders of the International Communications Forum, "and take the public with you."

After nine years of traveling across the world and hosting ICF conferences for the media, Porter says the stakes are as high as they can get. "I am now beginning to think that the media have a great responsibility for the development and maintenance of democracy itself," he says.

The former British deputy chairman of the multinational Kluwer Group, a publishing empire, Porter admits that, at the height of his career, prestige and making money were all important to him. "I was happy to take the praise, if we did something with a product that had a good social effect," he says. "But if it had a bad effect, I was ready to wash my hands of it because we had freedom of information."

Then Porter had a sea change when he realized that the communications industry had become the largest industry in the world. "For the most part, I knew it was not a responsible industry," he says. After retirement, and joined by media friends, he formed ICF as a forum to help raise the standards in the industry by steady, thoughtful persuasion of those who write, film, edit, direct, publish, and create.

Is the ICF just tilting at powerful, money-making windmills? "There is nothing wrong with making money," Porter says. "But just earning money regardless of the circumstances can have a downward effect on the whole of civilization. The pressures on young people by drugs, violence and deviant sexual behavior comes heavily through in films and TV. They are a tremendous influence, and I think, we have to say, let's reverse that trend so young people will want a civilization that is worth living [in]."

Porter, a man of easy grace and laughter recently stopped in Cambridge, Mass., on his travels. The following are excerpts from an interview with him.

How do you measure the success of the International Comm. Forum?

I think it's difficult to measure the success of something that is a conscience-to-conscience activity. How do you assess if people become more responsible or more honest or behave better? Our idea was to create a network of men and women in the media who believed in moral values and applied them, and would therefore affect their workplaces and their audiences.

Over this period, we have held 15 conferences and now have a network of some 2,000 people. And we have some anecdotal evidence. The publisher of the Toronto Globe and Mail says when a reporter is sent out to report on a problem now, he or she should look for people who might be trying to find answers. I am told that this has made the paper more interesting to read, and just as importantly, it gives the journalist a greater sense of dignity.... A friend of mine, a deputy editor at an Australian newspaper, reported about a conflict on the island of Bougainville in New Guinea where thousands of people were killed. He interviewed the leaders of both sides, and said, well, it's not my business, but should I try to bring about some sort of reconciliation talks? He decided to do that, and along with other people, in fact, he played a part in setting up of talks that led to the end of the conflict.

Is that the role of a journalist?

No, it isn't. We are not paid to solve problems. But I think the journalists should be free, if they have the opportunity to do something of that nature, to feel they can do it.

Have you seen restraints in the tendency of worldwide press to emphasize mostly negative events and issues?

Yes. About four years ago, Martin Lewis of the BBC did a study of the whole BBC news service and discovered that 95 percent of it focused on what was going wrong in the world. He felt this imbalance was actually misinformation, that people should be given balanced news.... At first he was strongly criticized by the heads of the BBC, but thousands of people wrote in and said they agreed with him. And then the BBC said, 'Oh, it's great to have you with us, Martin....' Today, I think the BBC is one of the most balanced and wide-ranging of news programs available.

American TV and movies are so readily available in the world. Have you seen examples of their impact?

The US produces something like 75 percent of the world's visual media. In Russia, where most TV stations have very low budgets, I was in a large city and learned that on their main regional TV station 10 percent of the programming was Russian, and 90 percent was imported and most of it was rubbish from the US because it was so inexpensive.... In India, where there is a TV in almost every village and people gather around in the evenings to see programs the satellites bring in, these can be shows of subject matter the national companies are not allowed [to produce]. It worries the leaders because [the shows] present an almost unattainable level of prosperity. And they also present a very unpleasant way of living in that prosperity with drugs, violence, and deviant sexuality. A man from northeast India sent me a letter and said the young people there think drug-taking is a stepping stone to prosperity. The US makes technically marvelous films and programs, but it's what's in them, the gratuitous violence, families always in conflict.

As the new millennium nears, what are the hot spots around the world that need the most media attention?

What worries me at the end of the century is that we have around 30 major conflicts in the world which have never been fully resolved.... What about the media? I think we should be helping to create a climate in which problems can be solved because.... We are responsible for the general public attitude and feelings. It's one thing to stop a fight; it's another to [bring about] reconciliation. And I hope this is what we do in the next century, create a climate in which problems can be solved.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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