CentreForum’s ‘Liberal Hero of the Week’ #11 – Simon Walsh

by Stephen Tall on August 19, 2012

ImageWelcome to the eleventh in our series — Liberal Hero of the Week — as chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

The aim is simple enough: to showcase public figures who help promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book: economic, personal, political and social liberalism. We will be highlighting individuals regardless of their party affiliation, and indeed from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism then they’re in contention. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Simon Walsh

Barrister, magistrate, and former chairman of the City of London Corporation police committee and formerly an aide to the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
Reason: For demonstrating yet again that an overpowering state can ruin innocent lives (even as he stood up to that state).

‘Roadkill’ — that’s how Simon Walsh, acquitted this month of charges of possessing extreme pornography, described himself to the London Evening Standard this week following the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision to subject his private life to the most brutal possible exposure:

His career, he says, has been stopped in its tracks by that initial police suspicion, with its catastrophic implications of paedophilia, and by the splashing of his sex life across the press. He also claims that the CPS was “out to get a conviction by whatever means they could”. “The damage is irreparable. What I had, the status I had, has been ruined… The CPS refuses to accept that certain slightly unusual, but consensual, safe and pleasurable practices should be permitted,” he claims.

Those ‘consensual, safe and pleasurable practices’ Simon Walsh describes (urethral sounding and anal fisting) are ones which would make most of us wince, either in disapproval or imagined pain or both. But the simple point is this: they’re none of our business. The only reason they have become our business is because the CPS has stretched legislative powers given to them by the last Labour government — Section 63 of the 2008 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, which criminalises images of acts likely to cause “serious injury” to a participant.

Some people of a more prudish disposition will reckon that Simon Walsh got his just desserts for behaviour that was beyond the pale (I’m scrupulously avoid the term ‘near the knuckle’). But such complacency is just what power-grabbing governments want us to be lulled into. As Nick Cohen pointed out in his profile of Mr Walsh last weekend:

You, dear reader, should be worried. The supposed child pornography was lying unopened in a file in one of Walsh’s inboxes. Are you sure there is nothing similar in a spam folder on your laptop? If there is, you many face prosecution under an obscenity law that ignores John Stuart Mill’s principle that consenting adults must be free to do as they choose as long as they do not harm others.

The CPS has deservedly earned a hole heap of ordure for its mean-spiritedly vexatious pursuit of Mr Walsh. But some credit has emerged too. First, to the British jury of Mr Walsh’s 12 fellow citizens who swiftly dispatched the CPS’s charges. As Nick Cohen puts it:

The jury concluded that, however obscene the sexual practices on display, they were not as obscene as the notion that the CPS could poke its nose into the nation’s bedrooms. It acquitted and proved that the ruin of Simon Walsh’s career, the costs of a case that had forced him to sell his flat and the public money spent on bringing him to trial had been a colossal waste.

But, most of all, the credit belongs to Simon Walsh himself. It would have been much easier for him to slink away shame-faced, to have let the state get its way and ruin his life. But he didn’t: “This has caused me an immense amount of damage and I’m still in real difficulties, but I’m open about it and I can cope.”

So yes, there’s real heroism here. But that in no way makes up for the damage inflicted on a man for no reason other than that the state was given the power to do so. The last word belongs to Mr Walsh:

“This will only be a landmark case if the CPS changes its attitude and accepts that there are certain things it should not prosecute. The Act [of 2008] is simply not meant to catch snapshots at a party. Actually, I’ve been genuinely amazed by how understanding people have been when I’m able to explain it. But it takes a lot of explaining and you need people to listen, and sadly that’s not what most people will do. I will be — and have been — judged on the basis of headlines, not the whole story.”

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here.