Thursday, October 30, 2008

From left to right: Bob Webb, Imam Hamid Slimi, Bill Porter and Henry Heald Bill Porter in Ottawa and Toronto – October 2008

Report by Henry F. Heald, ICF Representative in Canada:

I have just spent an inspiring week in Ottawa and Toronto with Bill Porter, founder of the International Communications Forum, and Bob Webb, long-tine reporter, columnist and editorial writer with the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the first US journalist join Bill when he launched the ICF in 1991. I could write long and impressive introductions for both of them, but I will set my reporter’s hat aside, go light on the details and try to give you an assessment of what the week achieved.

The goal of the ICF is to inspire a socially responsible global communications industry by challenging the participants - journalists, artists, musicians, writers and communicators of all stripes .- to live the quality of life necessary for a healthy world society. As one commentator put it; “You can’t live crooked and think straight.”

Bill Porter spent a week in Toronto and Ottawa in September 2007 at the invitation of two Toronto Muslims who had met him at Caux, Switzerland, a businessman and the Imam of a large Mosque in Toronto’s west end. Then Human Concern International (HCI) a Muslim sponsored aid agency, headquartered in Ottawa, invited him to come back this year to address the agency’s annual fund-raising banquet.

What is it that draws the Canadian Muslim Communities to the ICF? Certainly the Islamophobia in the Western press is enough to cause frustration among Muslims everywhere, but it goes deeper than that. Bill Porter sees the divisions among the world’s great religions as one of the world’s major problems and feels that creating unity among them is a challenge the media must face. The battle line of civilization, he says, is not between individuals or groups it is between good and evil. 

Bill’s speech to the more than 300 diners at the HCI banquet struck a chord with his audience. It wasn’t a barnburner of a speech. That isn’t Bill’s style. He started out by giving his audience credit for the fact that he was still alive, Shortly after accepting the invitation to come to Canada he was in a French hospital not expected to live. A young doctor offered to operate on him in his clinic in Lille, warning Bill that there was only a one-in-ten chance that he would survive the helicopter ride and a one-in-ten chance that he would survive the operation - pretty long odds. Bill credits the Canadian trip with helping to give him the will to live. “I arrived at the Gates of Heaven,” he joked, “and turned in my credentials. They were returned marked, REJECTED! WORK ON EARTH UNCOMPLETED”

As well as giving his audience some of the interesting anecdotes from our 18 years of communications forums. Bill told the moving story of how his granddaughter broke free from the alcohol and drug culture of London as result of the change she saw in her grandfather. She is now happily married, drug free, and raising twin girls. When he finished there were a number of formal questions from the floor, a mad scramble to buy the last four copies of his book “Do Something About It” and then people gathered around him for an extended informal discussion.

Earlier in the week Bill and Bob met with journalism students at a reception at Algonquin College organized by the Media Club of Canada and Joe Banks, director of’ Algonquin’s journalism program.

Bob Webb grew up in Mississippi and worked for a newspaper in the capital city of Jackson in a culture where racial segregation was automatically accepted. The story of hi personal change at a Moral Re-Armament conference in 1957 and his subsequent 30 years with the Cincinnati Enquirer where he worked to promote racial harmony, rang bells both with the students in Ottawa and at the meeting on Media Ethics organized by the International Muslim Organization and Human Concern International in Toronto.

Bob has won a number of journalism awards and served for a time as the Enquirer’s Washington Bureau Chief’, He now makes his home in Alexandria, just outside of Washington, DC, and remains active with the National Press Club and the Society for Professional Journalists, as well as serving as US vice-president of the ICF.

The week also included several informal gatherings of journalists and friends and some one-on-one meetings with individuals. In Toronto Imam Hamid Slimi hosts his own television show and recorded 10 minute interviews with both Bill Porter and Bob Webb.

Bill says it was never his intention to build a permanent organization. “We are good al establishing bridgeheads, but we need to make some breakthroughs,” he says. His vision for the future is that many individual communicators will catch his conviction and take responsibility for bringing about change in the media.

 

Report by Bob Webb, ICF Vice President, USA:

Against the background of Canada's spectacular fall colors, Bill Porter, founder-president of the International Communications Forum(ICF), swept into Ottawa October 14 on the country's national election day as a fresh breeze with his vision for a new media heralding a new world. He inspired wherever he went whether meeting journalists, J-students or media consumers. Our host, free-lance Canadian journalist Henry Heald, ICF regional director for Canada, and I as the Forum's Vice President for America worked with him throughout the week.

But it was a miracle Bill, 88, was even there. Heart surgery he'd had with only a one-in-10 chance to survive had sent him on his way from his home in France.  He credits his invitation to speak to major Muslim groups in Canada with helping him survive.  His doctors agreed a patient's life purpose and will to live are often keys to survival.

 Small wonder, then, that he began his talk to more than 300 mostly Muslims at the Human Concerns International (HCI) fund-raising dinner in Ottawa by paying tribute to that invitation: "I was relaxed about dying," he said, "but did I have a bigger motivation to live? Well, there were several, but one of them that was influential was that you had invited me to Canada to speak at this and other events ... I felt that my engagement in any activity that would bring understanding and united action between Islam and the rest of the world was a priority for our time. It was an even greater issue than Wilberforce's battle to end the slave trade two centuries earlier ... " Applause ripped through the huge meeting hall.

 Bill, a former foreign correspondent, praised HCI's charitable work in many countries and traced the origins of the ICF to his own change from one with scant concern for media ethics to one committed to a new and higher vision for all communicators, beginning with himself. The HCI event was one of several where he drove home his conviction that mass media must play a far more constructive role in a world with myriad social problems and conflicts. He'd had an epiphany around 18 years ago after the Financial Times (ital) reported mass media in all its aspects was the largest business in the world.

 Then a leading figure in British book publishing, Bill decided if mass media was the largest it was by no means the most responsible. He cited himself as an example of what was wrong.  He said his motivations -- to make money and himself important -- were inadequate. He'd been unconcerned when his company produced products with a bad effect on society though happy to take the praise when they had a good effect.

 "We (media) had significantly contributed to the pollution of youth, to the indifference of many in our generation to the needs of society," he said. "We promoted pseudo celebrities as models for behavior and were helping to corrupt even emerging societies. With this we were losing the confidence of the public, and polls about the status of journalists in many countries gave us only 15%. I decided to look at my own performance against this backdrop. I had what might be called a tough interview with myself." At my table was Azhar Ali Khan, taking copious notes. He'd been on the Ottawa Citizen (ital) 25 years before joining the Commission on Canada's Future and later becoming a refuge judge.

 Bill confessed "there was often a lack of honesty in the preparation of the company's accounts. I accepted deceitful statements in our advertising and I had a very imaginative view of my expense accounts. I realized that criminality did not begin in the back streets or on the football terraces but in company boardrooms, the soft seats of expensive cars and fashionable night clubs. Unless those of us with wealth and privilege cleaned up our own act it would not be surprising that our courts were under stress, our prisons overcrowded ... To the extent I was part of this decadence I decided to cease my doubtful practices and to give priority to the interests and welfare of my employees, colleagues, suppliers and customers."

 With his change, he shared his concerns about media with his late wife who challenged him: "If you are thinking that way, why don't you do something about it!." His memoir is titled, "Do something about it!"

 The first event on his Ottawa schedule was a meeting at Algonquin College with J-students and the Media Club of Canada (four years older than the National Press Club in Washington celebrating its centennial) where we both spoke -- Bill on the ICF and I mostly on my change from a racist journalist in the deep south of America to one writing and speaking to heal rather than hurt, to unite rather than divide and to bring people together rather than drive them apart. I was moved by those who approached me afterward, including a freshman newly arrived from Siberia. A former Chinese journalist living part time in Canada kindly offered use of her Shanghai condo if I would meet with journalists in her country. 

 An arresting event was the dinner party for a dozen or so people at the condo of Wayne Kines, where Bill and I stayed in Ottawa. Kines is director of the World Media Institute. Guests were from diverse backgrounds, one a former World Bank executive striving to make English the global language, one a former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. As always, Bill was engaging, always inspiring. But the comments of all were welcome.

 A six-hour drive took us to Toronto where Bill and I spoke at a second HCI dinner in the public space adjoining a mosque. Again, Bill drove home the points he'd made in Ottawa, and I shared my change story.

We were much impressed by another speaker, Nazim Baksh, producer and investigative correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting System and Radio-Canada. He'd covered the Afghanistan war and investigated events surrounding a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.  Afterward, a Muslim crane operator approached me to say how much it meant to him to hear the sorrow I expressed for the Islamaphobia  intensified after 911.

 Our last major event was at Toronto's TCI-TV station where Bill and I were interviewed separately by Imam Hamid Slimi, chairman of the Canadian Council of Imams, on his weekly program which goes globally via satellite and the Web. That night Roger Parkinson, former chairman of the Globe and Mail and former president of the World Association of Newspapers, treated us to dinner at the sprawling Granite Sports and Social Club. It was Roger who at our "Denver 2001" event said, "The ICF has put the issue of the effect of the media on society on the world's agenda."