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Service of thanksgiving

Former BBC news anchorman Martyn Lewis read the Sarajevo Commitment at the Memorial Service for Bill Porter, held at St Brides' Church, Fleet Street, on 11 June. 'Bill, you couldn't have a finer epitaph,' Lewis said as his conclusion. Gordon Graham, President of the Kohima Education Trust and former Chairman of Butterworth publishers, and Bernard Margueritte, ICF Chairman and leading media commentator in Poland, both gave moving tributes to Porter (see below). Susan Mouton-Liger, Porter's niece, sang Pie Jesu from Faure's Requiem. Among members of Porter's family at the service were his son Frederick, his granddaughter Natalie Phillpot and her husband Jabez, and their children Grace and Isabella. Natalie Phillpot and Simon Cohen, managing director of Global Tolerance, read the Beatitudes. The service was officiated by the rector of St Brides', Canon David Meara, and the Rev George Pitcher, associate priest.

The Sarajevo Commitment—the finest summary of Bill’s aspirations

by Martyn Lewis, former BBC TV news anchor

Bill wanted to make journalism better. He believed that we who demand, quite properly, the right to hold to account every other sector of society should not shrink from turning that same eagle eye on our own profession – to analyse what we do and how we do it.

Bill achieved great success in signing up hundreds of journalists to his campaign. And he was there when almost 200 of them met in Sarajevo nine years ago. Many were from the Eastern bloc – wrestling with how they could reconcile their new, exciting freedom to report and criticise with a desire not to crush the new, fragile flower of democracy which had replaced decades of communist rule. They produced a declaration of ambition and intent which they called The Sarajevo Commitment. It is probably the finest summary of the aspirations that Bill had for his profession.

Never took no for an answer

by Gordon Graham MC
President, Kohima Educational Trust, 11 June 2009

and I met in the 1970s, when we both became involved in the unglamorous field of law publishing, in which we were competitors. Bill was not a very good competitor. He was too nice. He was working for Kluwer, the Dutch publisher who in 1970 had started a UK branch, for which, in the following 18 years, Bill carved a significant niche.

We first got to know each other through committee work in the Publishers Association. This, of course, was long before Bill conceived the idea of the International Communications Forum, which was to be the crowning achievement of a life characterised by strong ethical convictions – and struggles. Bill had a lifelong Socratic dialogue of conscience with himself, and latterly with hundreds of journalists, on issues like freedom versus responsibility or profit versus public duty. Bill was always more interested in the whole than the part, and in the place of the part in the whole.

He and I were, successively, Chairmen of an enterprise called Publishers Databases Limited which depended on publishers collaborating with each other and for that reason was fated to fail. But this did not discourage Bill, who put his heart into it.

Bill and I were born within a few days of each other, members of the cannon-fodder generation for World War II, in which Bill served in North Africa, Italy and India. We both lived in India for some years after the war. We both worked precariously as freelance international journalists, from which we stumbled into the kindred, but more secure, world of book publishing.

I asked Colin Ancliffe, who succeeded Bill as Managing Director of Kluwer in the UK, for some memories of Bill. He was, Colin wrote, a man of huge generosity of spirit allied to an instinctive belief that anything could be accomplished with sufficient effort’ and summed him up as ‘a gifted professional and risk-taking publisher, great raconteur, a very good dining companion, superb motivator, good friend’.

Bill was certainly a good dining companion, partly I think because he loved to talk. After all, he met his beloved wife Sonja by chatting her up on a bus in Croatia. In restaurants, he did not take menus lightly. Waiters would be interrogated, not only about the merits of the dishes, but about their personal histories. An instinctive humanitarian, Bill was not comfortable with the commercial imperative and explicitly abrogated personal gain when he started ICF.

Another activity which Bill did not take lightly was letter-writing. Over the years I accumulated a fat Bill Porter file. So I was not surprised in 1990 to receive several pages from him outlining his vision of ICF and asking me to join him. I said no. ‘It’s your thing, Bill. You do it. I’ll be glad to help from the wings.’ Bill did not seem to hear the first part of my response. His selective deafness was part of his charm, and one of the secrets of his achievements. He did not take no for an answer.

A few months before he died, Bill and I had lunch together in a country pub. We talked about the past and the future. He spoke about his perennial concern about fundraising for his beloved cause. He told some of his jokes which I always enjoyed, because he laughed so heartily at them. When we parted at the railway station, Bill said, ‘Of course, we’ll meet again.’ I said, ‘Sure, Bill.’ That was the last I saw of him, hobbling away, a gallant figure, always ready for his next journey in pursuit of what he perceived as the right thing to do.

Man on a mission who changed my life

by Bernard Margueritte
Chairman, International Communications Forum, 11 June 2009

My encounter with Bill Porter was undoubtedly set up by Divine Providence. I happened to meet Mike Lowe in Warsaw, who was a one-time teacher of my son. Knowing that we were going to Cambridge, USA, he gave me the names of Bryan and Anne Hamlin who lived there. At a dinner in their house in 1994 I met Bill for the first time. The timing could not have been better. I was then a Fellow at the Harvard Shorenstein Center, discussing with brilliant people the future and mission of the media in a scholarly manner. So I was prepared to hear Bill’s message about the role of the media in society, our credibility and dignity. I must admit however that I came to the dinner not expecting much from this meeting with an elderly gentleman. And it changed my life.

Bill had this incredible charisma found very rarely: being with him you immediately had the feeling that you could totally trust him, that everything in him was genuine (although he loved to say that after so many operations lately only his brain was still genuine). You could feel with him that you were touching the core of the matter. At the end of this Cambridge dinner I knew that my life would be thereafter linked with Bill.

As we know, the founder of the ICF in his usual stump speech was not saying terribly unexpected things. He spoke as many others about the need for honest media as pillars of democracy, building a new covenant in a world desperately in need of a new humanism. Many are saying such things and it’s why we sometimes had difficulty in explaining to outsiders what makes the ICF special. Well, when it was said by Bill those words immediately took another dimension. They were able to move everyone’s heart and mind. It worked. I even surprised myself listening for the thirtieth or fortieth time to the same speech and the same jokes by Bill and still being moved anew, every time! The secret was simple: everyone understood that Bill was not simply toying with ideas. He was engaging the whole of himself, as a man of profound dignity and integrity. He was telling the truth, his truth, the truth he experienced in his life.

It was always strange for me to hear Bill pretending so long that he was a ‘lapsed agnostic’. Lapsed for sure. He was in fact the most religious person among us. He was all the time completing God’s work. God was in him and he was in God. And that is reflected in the beautiful Sarajevo Commitment, that we just heard, which Bill first wrote waiting to take a plane, in such a way that all we had to do afterwards was to put the final touches to it.

Bill was a man on a mission. It was a calling and he knew that everyone had to listen. When I started to work as the ICF president and to travel a lot he gave me a simple lesson: ‘Bernard, when you arrive in a new country, even if you don’t know anyone, don’t worry, call a few editors-in-chief and let them know that you are the President of the ICF and that you want to meet them. Believe my experience, probably most of them will have never heard of the ICF, but they will think that they should have, and they will invite you.’ Indeed it always worked, so strong is the power of a genuine conviction!

Bill is also a symbol for every one of us that everything is possible in life, at any point in life. Bill had a full and interesting life, but truly it all started with his commitment with ICF. We know that he was linked with Moral Re-Armament in his young days, but it is true that his work to build and expand the ICF was the work of his life, the new life he found at 70.

This is why it was such an emotional moment for me when on a July day in Caux, Switzerland, in 2001 Bill came and convinced me at length that I was the one who should continue his work. This is also why, after Bill’s passing, I am overwhelmed by such a feeling of responsibility. One thing is sure: no matter the difficulties, we have to continue Bill’s work. The only tribute we should pay to Bill should not be in words but in what we do to continue what he inspired us to do.

One so touching characteristic of Bill was that he was always looking forward, planning ahead. The last time we spoke on the phone he was full of joy to go to Saint-Tropez, happy that he would take part in June in the International Press Institute conference in Helsinki, making plans about another trip to Canada. I have no doubt that Bill is still planning the future of the ICF, looking to help us achieve our common goals. Now we have a powerful ally over there!

Bill had also a remarkable, deliciously British if I may say so, sense of humor. One day when we were travelling by car in the north of France, he told me suddenly: “You know, Bernard, I was not a bad man after all; I will probably end up in heaven; but I don’t know if I should. I am not sure I will meet many of my friends there!” Well, Bill, let me hope that some day after all we will meet you there, in the Joy and Glory of God. Amen.