In this episode, host Melissa Fleming speaks with Neil Walsh, Chief of Cybercrime and Anti-Money Laundering for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. He describes the horrific surge of criminals exploiting and abusing children online while they are in lock-down and what he is doing to stop it. He speaks about his belief that “COVID-19 is the great reset button.” He also describes the scene he witnessed of a deadly terrorist bombing as a child in Belfast, Northern Ireland and how “that was the moment where I decided I’m going to do something to stop this stuff.”
Mr. Walsh also speaks candidly about his continuing 14-year battle with bowel cancer and why he is so vocal on social media about his struggle with the disease. “There were four occasions where he was told by a doctor, ‘you may not survive tonight.’ He reveals that he was diagnosed on the day of his second date with his wife and the notes he writes to his four children in case he doesn’t make it out of surgery alive.
Melissa Fleming 00:07
I'm Melissa Fleming and I'm the United Nations Chief of Communications. Welcome to my podcast Awake At Night. This season I'm speaking to people at the UN who are at the forefront of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, from health responders on the ground to those who combat it in cyberspace. My guest today is Neil Walsh, who is the UN Chief of Cybercrime. Welcome. Thank you, Melissa. First of all, the corona virus represents a very personal threat to you. Can you tell me about why that is,
Neil Walsh 00:58
as we all know the impact of Coronavirus If you get it, it damages your lungs if you end up on a ventilator that leads to really bad outcomes, and only 50% of people who end up on a ventilator survive. I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer for the second time in 2018. And then during surgery and treatment, I was lucky enough to have multiple brain haemorrhages followed by pulmonary embolisms, in both lungs, which has left my lungs damaged in a way that they'll never recover from. So my oncologist in Vienna has a particularly wry sense of humour where he he described cancer as being somewhat unfortunate. And I said, Well, what would it be like for me if I got the Coronavirus? And he said really bad, which I think is his speak for really dead. So for me, it's been being about avoiding that. try and do everything I can not to get it and allowing myself to be sitting here with you today.
Melissa Fleming 01:53
Well, yeah, so you're in that category of highly vulnerable people.
Neil Walsh 01:58
Melissa Fleming 01:59
You're In a country that has done a pretty good job of controlling the pandemic, but how else are you managing and how are you? What are you doing to stay safe?
Neil Walsh 02:12
So it was really following the advice and I think you rightly said we're really lucky to be in a country that took it seriously locked down quickly put quarantine measures in place. So it's been staying at home and I religiously stayed at home I only went out if I had to go to a medical appointment or go and pick drugs up from the pharmacy. So doing that wearing a mask, washing hands and making sure that I really just follow the advice because think as we've seen, it works. If you follow within you limit your opportunity of getting infected.
Melissa Fleming 02:42
You are at home with how many children four children and all under the age of
Neil Walsh 02:52
10. So 10, 8, 6 and 3, which
Melissa Fleming 02:57
All living under lockdown
Neil Walsh 02:58
Or living under lockdown all over Go off crush, trying to manage outside manage. I, you know, my wife remarkably took on the homeschooling bit, which I think we realised after a week too. It's not about them learning anything. It's about managing to survive, managing to survive being locked down together, not killing each other, and not losing the knowledge that you already had. Because it's not schooling, right? You're not sitting in a class with a professional teacher. We're just trying to help them get through this period. And then,
Melissa Fleming 03:28
But you're also working full time I see you extremely active.
Neil Walsh 03:31
Yeah, it's I don't know about you. And my work doubled during this time because I have the normal day to day Vienna base stuff. But then so much of my work was with with New York on a lot of the COVID base responses in New York. So you work during the day, have a little bit of dinner, get the kids washed, get them to bed, and then I would be back on comfortably three or four nights a week working nine till midnight, 1am. And that's just the way it had to be.
Melissa Fleming 03:55
It's the way it happened. We're going to get into that a little bit further, because things Have the impact of the Coronavirus has really also, I imagine impacted your work but I want to talk about that soon. But just a bit more about your health situation because you're very vocal and public about your own struggle, which I you know, is kind of unusual. I know, as someone who survived cancer myself, it was a dilemma. Do I go public with this? Why? Why did you decide to speak online and so forcefully about your cancer?
Neil Walsh 04:29
It's a great question. I mean, the my first cancer was rectal cancer and people tend not to talk about bombs or genitals or breasts that gets a bit uncomfortable. And for me, when I was diagnosed, I was a law enforcement officer in the UK the first time and getting getting rectal cancer at 26 is incredibly rare. It's like point 00 something percent of patients will be diagnosed at that age, and I'd had symptoms since I was 21. And they're they're really obvious symptoms. If you have blood when you go to the toilet that is not normal. And I ignored that for a period of time because I thought I don't want to go to the doctor, I don't want to have something put my bum not to want to do this. And stupidly I ignored it, and then reached the point when I was 25-ish, where sometimes I'd go to the loo. The only thing coming up was blood and lots of it. And I thought, This is not right. So I went back to the doctor who said, Don't worry, it's nothing. You're young, you lift weights you go to the gym is probably a hemorrhoid, something like that. So here's the treatment. It'll fix it, it'll go away. And it didn't. So at least I went back and I went back again and said, it's no better. And we did the same treatment regime again for six weeks, no change, went back to him again to no better and he said, Well, I'll send you to the hospital just to be checked to be on the safe side. And I would talk to the hospital and this was in the north of London 10th of May 2006. a day that I'll never forget. And I remember lying semi-naked on a couch with my knees up to my chin. wearing a shirt and tie and that is not a good look for any man to ever have, being naked in front of a doctor is fine shirt tie nothing else that's just weird. So suddenly doctor is there and he said Do you mind my medical student comes in said Yeah, of course. And of course they're stunningly beautiful go like 21 comes in, sort of lying there going Hello. And I don't know who was more uncomfortable her or me. But swiftly later they said, You've got a you've got a tumour in your rectum and you've more than likely it's cancerous. Long story short, then went into lots of surgery treatment, I had my rectum and part of my descending colon or the large intestine removed, had to have an ileostomy, a stoma, so a bag and my tummy for six months until they were able to reconnect me replumb me and then over the next few years, next five years it took to recover from that and to try and get some element of health back whilst still working in law enforcement. And then we're back to where I am now, which is another cancer diagnosis two years ago and Only yesterday I learned that I have to have another significant abdominal surgery in the next couple of weeks. So
Melissa Fleming 07:06
What?! stop there! Yeah, I mean, you're just speaking so casually about this. Well, the start is started at the cancer at 26. You're 40 now,
Neil Walsh 07:16
Melissa Fleming 07:17
You were just about to plan that
Neil Walsh 07:19
38 things seemed okay.
Melissa Fleming 07:21
And that 40 and you just went to the doctor in the middle of the covid 19 pandemic for a second. He said, What did they tell you?
Neil Walsh 07:28
So I had, I've had so many abdominal surgeries now. So my last cancer in 2018. They did a very rare procedure. I think there's only a handful of people worldwide have had it, which is the first part of your large intestine which is on the right side of your body. Mine was cut off, turned upside down and stitched onto my bum muscles, and then connected to my small intestine. That's all I have left and now of the large intestine. So I've had loads of abdominal surgery and I had an emergency surgery to cut me open from my surgeon from my chest, my pubic bone when things get stuck. inside of my bowel was obstructed by by a scar. So I've been opened up so many times that my just my abdomen and pelvic region is a bit of a mess. And I learned that I now have five hernias where the bowel is stuck in different bits of my abdomen, and pelvis. And that that needs dealt with reasonably swiftly. Otherwise, there's some risk around that of either the bowel perforating or the blood supply being cut off. So yeah, that's going to happen reasonably soon.
Melissa Fleming 08:28
So the question of why you decided to go to go public.
Neil Walsh 08:33
Partially, it was a much cheaper way of having therapy than paying someone. And I thought, honestly, if you can survive stuff like this by understanding the symptoms, then it's kind of my job to do that. So much of my time, then in law enforcement, I've worked on counterterrorism. I've worked on the 9/11 inquiry. I've worked in human trafficking and you see that you see the really bad parts of humanity. You see where things have happened to people that they can't prevent, where they have been a victim of crime, some really horrendous criminality. I thought if I can do something to minimise this disease, and it's talking about because no one talks about it, because this when I was diagnosed the first time that when we didn't have internet on our phones, you had to go to a library. And I realised that day when I was diagnosed, that my risk of death was pretty high. And I thought I can do something to draw attention on first what the symptoms are, then let's do that. And then that's the same approach I took in 2018. That if this is what's going to happen to me, if it helps one person to understand what's happening in their body and to seek help and seek advice and maybe save their lives, then it's probably worth it versus being a little bit embarrassed about something we really shouldn't be embarrassed about.
Melissa Fleming 09:40
Have you gotten any feedback that you helped somebody?
Neil Walsh 09:43
Yeah, I've had some really nice feedback of people who have gone to the doctor with symptoms and been diagnosed and got treated at a very, very early stage. So that for me is lovely, because with the treatment and then with when I had pulmonary embolisms, blood clots in my lungs about a month after surgery, That was the highest risk of death at that point because they can be really serious very, very swiftly. So on. I think in 2018, there was four occasions I was told by a doctor, you may not survive tonight, so and I'd warn them, Look, the paperworks could be immense. If I die tonight, my wife's gonna be really hacked off with you. So you've got to do what you can to save me in this space so lucky enough to have gotten through all of that. And being public about it, I think helps people to understand we're all human, we all go to the loo we all go outside, we all have things that can go wrong with our bodies. And if people understand it, then hopefully it helps to save a life. And for me now as I go into this next operation, realising that it will be there's some risk around it. And I remember in 2018 before the sort of third operation I was having, recording a video for my kids and my wife in case I died, recording a video for if there had to be a funeral and obviously if I was there, that probably wasn't a great result.
Melissa Fleming 10:55
What was your message to them then?
Neil Walsh 10:58
I never am not massively emotional. But you know, recording a video saying that if you're watching this, it means I'm dead. And for my, my kids who try and stuff like, Well, here's what life is like, here's the good bits and bad bits. Here's how you can keep yourself safe, here's how people will help you out. And you're gonna have a remarkable life and just do the best that you can. Don't. Don't worry about stuff just crack on with what you can do. And, you know, whatever happens, I was there for you stuff and you've got a great mom who will be there for you in the future.
Melissa Fleming 11:36
Do you still have that video?
Neil Walsh 11:37
I do. I do probably have to re record them soon. Cuz it's two years ago, and you know how fast kids grow up. So
Melissa Fleming 11:44
Let's not only to show that
Neil Walsh 11:46
I hope not. I hope not. But I've always been of the opinion, it's better to be prepared for something then. And this is where you can walk out into the street now have a heart attack and drop dead or get hit by a tram. I'm one of those lucky people that if it did happen I've had a bit of warning and a bit of time to prepare.
Melissa Fleming 12:03
Which is why you also issued a warning on Twitter about people like you who have health conditions and are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Yep. What was that message?
Neil Walsh 12:15
Hi. Because of cancer treatment, and steroid treatment currently, and the impact of pulmonary embolisms on my lungs, I'm one of those people that is immunosuppressed. I'm one of those that have a higher risk from the COVID-19 Coronavirus. So I've got something to ask you, please, please don't kill me. Please don't kill me by choosing to go the pub by choosing to go to a club, to a restaurant to go out when you don't have to. Please don't be the silent killer of a silent carrier of this virus when you can prevent that by socially distancing yourself from other people. I know it's not nice. I know. It's not See, gonna be hard, it's gonna get harder. But our lives are in your hands. We can't prevent lots of things that happen to us. But you can help us. So please, don't leavee my kids without a Dad, please, socially distance yourself. And it was really two people to say, this is serious, okay, this was still back in the time where lots of people weren't taking it seriously, where there was a real disconnect and messaging in different parts of the world. This is a bloody awful disease, look at the number of people who have died from it. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, millions are infected that are still infected. And we can help each other as a society as a population. And it's by following that advice of staying home and staying safe and trying to limit the spread. And for me it was I can do what I can to try and not get infected. But you can help me by doing the same thing. It's not simply though of us who are vulnerable, keeping ourselves safe. We all have a role to play in this. And when you know when we listen to our boss, Secretary General talks about solidarity, that's solidarity, not spreading something where you have the ability to keep away from it, to not expose yourself to large amounts of people. That's, you know, that's a good thing that we can hold to. And we can do it by simply staying at home.
Melissa Fleming 14:22
And how did people react to that tweet?
Neil Walsh 14:24
Most people there was some really nice comments and retweeting and sharing of that there was one guy come in I'm not, not sure the word that I described myself try read the comment, but it was fairly, you know, it was like, Oh, this is all crap. How do you know you kind of deserve to get this? Like, meh, yeah, whatever, man. And we see this sort of thing on Twitter and Social Media all the time. There is always going to be someone who is a, you're gonna have to tell me a nice word to describe someone like that. But it's, it's where you can, you're never gonna please 100% of the people 100% of the time. And there's always going to be someone who will make a comment and usually it's going to be a guy with a fake photo without his real name on it. That's how brave you are. Bring it on.
Melissa Fleming 15:04
Your job is trying to stop the scourge of cybercrime. What are you seeing now that is different than pre COVID times?
Neil Walsh 15:14
I think what we often see is, or what the public probably don't often see as the scale, the sheer scale of criminality, crime that happens online. And some of the most awful parts of it are the the exploitation and abuse of children. Sometimes you'll hear a term child pornography, and it's actually a really awful term. It doesn't exist. We all know what pornography is. And when I was a cop, the first time I had to watch a video of a very young child being raped, at no point in that space, do you think well, that's porn? pornography is adults who have consented to do something for money. A child who has been raped online is not involved in porn. They're being abused. They're being exploited. And the scale of it is phenomenal. In fact, only a couple of weeks ago, one of the partner organisations that we work with called the Internet Watch Foundation. They put out a report saying that in April alone in the UK, which is where they're based, they had blocked 300,000 attempts to access child abuse material on the internet 300,000 in one month, we see that at scale around the world, and we see that on the Darknet, the encrypted hidden part of the internet as well, has grown by hundreds of thousands of posts of child abuse videos of pictures. And these aren't, you know, sometimes people think child abuse sorts of 16, 17, 18 year old children having sex on camera. That is child abuse that is illegal. But I'm talking about pre verbal infants, we're talking from a couple of years old, right the way down to newborns being raped and abused online, and live streaming broadcasts, pay per view. And this happens at scale around the world, day in day out.
Melissa Fleming 15:42
At scale ?
Neil Walsh 16:52
Melissa Fleming 16:57
And it's worse. Now, please, this is phenomenon I know we've talked many times before the COVID-19, you know, lockdowns and that's it. This already was disturbing you and this has
Neil Walsh 17:10
It was already there. But the scale of increase now, because you have, if we're lucky enough to have a home to sit in, and we realised that not everybody does. But for those who are, we see, we're all in front of a camera without realising it. So many hours of the day, on your phone, on your laptop or on your tablet on goodness knows what else on TVs that have cameras integrated into them now. So we've seen availability, the access to victims has increased, okay, but if you're a child abuser, you need access. And if you are involved in sharing imagery and lots of them to get on to some of the really horrible internet forums, they have to share hundreds or thousands of images to be allowed access. And those images are typically of one's own children or children that you have access to. So we've seen that increase now we've seen criminals talking online about how To get access to children how to share more images, how to take captures, as they refer to it are caps of kids, their own kids who aren't aware of what's happening. So a TV camera, a camera on a laptop, on a tablet being left on without the knowledge of the child in the house, so they get captures of them naked or semi naked, or for older kids who are maybe masturbating in their room and trying to capture that and then sell it. And this happens around the world day in day out.
Melissa Fleming 18:30
How does that affect you as a father of four young children?
Neil Walsh 18:33
It might sound strange, I don't think it affects those who have kids or don't have kids any differently.
Melissa Fleming 18:38
Well, I just think I don't know about I mean, I'm I feel really shocked listening to you. Imagine what do you think that these are just outliers would be
Neil Walsh 18:48
One or two
Melissa Fleming 18:49
One or two
Neil Walsh 18:49
It's gonna be the creepy guy in the park in a dodgy raincoat? It isn't. It could be you. It could be me. There is no profile of a child sex offender. And I've certainly worked in cases In the past of women running a child's children's nursery kindergarten, who were abusing the kids filming it and selling it.
Melissa Fleming 19:07
So it's not just men.
Neil Walsh 19:08
No, it is principally men. But let's make that really clear it is principally men, probably in the high 90% is principally men, but there are women as well. And the reason that we draw attention onto this because if you want to stop something, if you want to counter something, you have to understand what that threat picture is. And if you close yourself off to women, maybe being an offender, you close yourself off to saving a life. Because if you don't think it could be the mom or the sister, or the aunt, or the friend who has access to kids, then you might not be able to take that intervention that saves a child's life.
Melissa Fleming 19:41
How can you save a child's life then with your job?
Neil Walsh 19:44
So we can we do and this is the part of my job that I love most where I say it's not me, it's my staff. I've the best staff in the UN sorry, no offence to the rest of you, but I do and they're around the world. They are working in some really challenging environments, some really difficult places to work. So my cyber work, for example, it works globally. But it's run from El Salvador. And my colleague, Nayelly, she runs the world from El Salvador. So she works with the host nation, as well as commanding the work around the world. And some of the work that she and my other colleague Luisa and Guatemala have done is literally life saving, where they've helped to investigate help the local authorities to find offenders who are operating online, there was one last year who was abusing children online where the children are groomed, where they're convinced to do something, usually sexualized, often it starts with, it'll either be an adult, fronting up as an adult and offering compliments, you're very pretty, you're beautiful, etc, etc, gaining confidence, gaining control, and then getting into a sexualized environment. Or it's an adult pretending to be a child. And that'll be done through online gaming. It'll be done through social media, and it'll be a fake a fictitious profile, which will look like a child but it'll be an adult operating it, and it'll convince them to take the clothes off. And then it'll be convincing them to masturbate online, send a video share the video. And then the extortion aspect comes in. If you don't do this for me, here's what's going to happen. And we thankfully through the work that Luisa and Nayelly do, we managed to, we had trained the Guatemalan authorities for police, prosecutors and judges, how to deal with this stuff. And they were a marvellous country and counterparts to work with. And they identified an offender on their own who was operating in their community. We were helping them to gain evidence and gather evidence internationally. And they brought this guy to justice who had offended against over 70 children online in multiple countries who had physically raped children in his own community, very young children. He was convicted of numerous crimes and got a 40 something year sentence for this.
Melissa Fleming 21:49
This is also the phenomenon this is happening in, say, El Salvador, but it's being sold internationally all over the world.
Neil Walsh 21:56
Thats where we look at there's some real challenges for some countries, too. So, if we look at child abuse on the open Internet, the ordinary open Internet that you could find with a couple of couple of clicks on a search engine, you will find child abuse material. And unfortunately, that the highest rate of hosting for that is in Europe right now used to be the US now it's in the Netherlands. And some of that is due to legislation. Some of it's due to the approach that web hosting companies take, because so much of the problem is online, but the solution can be brought by tech companies as well. But there's a human solution here as well, which is about we saw, okay. We've seen numerous cases in Southeast Asia where children very young children have been being sexually abused online, on pay per view channels, usually by their parents, and in some cases.
Melissa Fleming 22:03
Sorry, interrupt by their parents?
Neil Walsh 22:46
Most of it's by parents.
Melissa Fleming 22:48
Their parents are putting their children in front of these broadcasts?
Neil Walsh 22:52
Raping them sexually abusing them and most child abuse within the family. Unfortunately, but for Money in some Southeast Asian communities. I won't say which countries. But what we've seen is when those offences have been detected when the police have managed to identify where they are, they've gone to the house. They've gotten control of the child, save them, arrested mum and dad. And mum and dad have said, yeah, we know what we're doing is really horrible. It's awful. But the money we, the money we make from this is being used to feed the children in our village. You have people making a conscious choice to rape and sexually torture their own children to make money to feed other kids in the village.
Melissa Fleming 23:35
Neil Walsh 23:36
To say the least.
Melissa Fleming 23:38
To what extent is in the digital age, a contributor to this does it.
Neil Walsh 23:43
Makes it easier if I think I'm 40 when I was growing up in Northern Ireland as a if I was a 14, 15 year old I wanted simply to see porn to find that would have been really difficult. You had to find somebody with a magazine now Everybody has a device. And we often get asked the question how, what filters do you put on? How do you keep them from seeing this doesn't work? Okay, this is why we need a conversation, our children our job as be for us as diplomats, be it for educators, be it as parents, be it as adults in society, we have to have an open conversation about what's out there. And how we take we take control of this and how to help our kids make better reasoned judgments. And there's a really nice campaign just started in New Zealand, which they have some wonderful videos actually of a, a couple of porn actors knock on the door of a house.
New Zealand Campaign Advert 24:40
Oh, yeah, I'm so this is Derrick. We're here because your son just looked us up online, you know, to watch us mad.
Neil Walsh 24:50
And it sounds through their clarity naked and the mom was like, the hell are you doing here? And they said, Well, your son's been watching us online, and he needs to understand that what he sees with us isn't a normal relationship. Talking about consent. And the sun turns up sort of drops the cereal bottle holding the laptop. But this is actually how we get into a really good conversation. We can't if we put our heads in the sand and say this stuff doesn't exist, or I don't want to have that conversation, I've done this with my kids with my 10 year old, sensitively age appropriately, trying to understand, has she seen this online, she doesn't have a phone herself. She's not getting a phone until she's 55. At least that's my decision, right? But I know there's kids in her class that do. And if you have kids in the class with a mobile phone, they will find porn. It's going to happen. It's going to happen really swiftly. So I want them to understand what is normal, what's not, what's acceptable, what's not. How do you stay safe? What if you're in a relationship in your routines, and your boyfriend or your girlfriend sends you a picture that's naked of them? What's your responsibility there? What happens if you share that with people who they didn't want to have that you might be committing a crime, you could go to jail for that. But it comes back. It's not about criminalising kids. I hate seeing kids getting criminal But it is about being aware of what is our role in society, we have to understand their lives are different to what ours were the way that ours were different from our parents.
Melissa Fleming 26:09
You mentioned a bit about your upbringing in Northern Ireland. And so what led you anyway to work in law enforcement?
Neil Walsh 26:20
Wasn't the plan. Nothing in my life has been planned. But I grew up in Northern Ireland in Belfast, which during the 80s, in the 90s, had some really before that, but during my life lifetime had some really difficult terrorism problems. And I saw shootings and bombings routinely throughout my childhood, family, friends who were killed, maimed, murdered. And I made a decision. I think really early as a child that I wanted to be a doctor, I want to be a trauma surgeon dropping out of a helicopter going stick people back together, because of all the stuff that I'd seen in Northern Ireland. But when I was 11 years old, No, I remember this as clear as right now I was a Saturday morning. And I was in the city centre of Belfast with my dad in a closed the shop. And I felt it before I heard it. It was the shockwave of a bomb going off. And the windows come in round us, my dad was on the other side of the shop. And the noise I've never heard noise like that. And you imagine if you've been in a nightclub for five hours standing beside the speakers and your ears are vibrating and there's this sort of e and you can't hear anything else. And I sort of looked around, there's dust and glass and it's really not very good. I saw my dad and he came over grabbed me and we walked outside. And this was quite a small street called High Street in Belfast. And back at this point in the early 90s. Police cars were very heavily armoured sort of BMWs Ford Escort vehicles that they didn't have blue lights on them. You can couldn't tell didn't say police on the side But they were clearly police cars because they were very heavily armoured with bulletproof glass on them. I want to turn out happened was a IRA terrorist had walked along to this police car with a radio like a Walkman sized device that had semtex plastic explosives in it, plopped it onto the roof of the car, the cops inside it, heard the conch and knew what it was and they opened their doors like a 45 degree angle to dissipate the blast out of the car. And as they jumped out, the bomb went off, and they were both very badly injured, but there was an old woman walking past the car. And she was blowing into a shop window. And I remember seeing what was left of her body lying on the floor. She was still alive but she was basically cut across her abdomen with part of her bowel hanging out and bleeding out everywhere. And there was other people lying around the street with bits of limbs missing and blood everywhere and dust and smoke and fire everywhere. My dad grabbed me and we ran into this or the next street parallel to go back to the car to go and run away and get away from this, because it wasn't uncommon that there will be another attack shortly after the first one. And this was the first time that I'd really seen it in my life. And I was okay and wasn't upset. And then as we were going down the next parallel Street, the tears came, and a woman walking up the street towards us, people are still shopping, right? This is only one street away. And she pointed at me and said, Stop crying, you've nothing to cry about my Ted, stop her, grabbed her by the coat and said, a bomb has gone off in the street behind people are dead. And because of the layout of buildings, you couldn't actually it didn't hear the bomb go off one street away. Because the blast had sort of gone in and up. And she was like, Oh my god, I didn't realise I'm sorry. But that for me, that was the moment where I decided I'm going to do something to stop this stuff. Something in my life and I wanted to be I want to be a doctor. I wanted to be a trauma surgeon. But when it came to doing my exams at school, turns out I'm not that good at the the reproductive organs of a daffodil. And from screwing that exam up, I didn't get the grades to get into medical school. But my backup that I'd applied for was to study psychology and criminology. And I went off and did that was the best decision I ever made. And from doing that, I joined what was an organisation that doesn't exist anymore, called the National Criminal Intelligence Service in the UK, then became The Serious Organised Crime Agency and nowadays is called the National Crime Agency. So I got into that then did a master's in criminal investigation. September 11, happened by nine months after I joined the office. So I spent and spent a lot of time then doing counterterrorism work based in New York and New York and in the Middle East and really running all of that side of business. And we're very lucky had a really interesting career of managing kidnaps and assassination prevention teams and then ended up being lucky enough to be posted overseas to Europol the EU's law enforcement agency in The Hague, and then from there to Malta, to run counterterrorism and human trafficking work that was coming out of North Africa during 2015. And then in the middle of that, I got a call from the UN saying, hey, that job you apply for 18 months ago. You want it. Okay. When do I have to decide? I said tomorrow?
Melissa Fleming 31:20
So it took 18 months to recruit you, but your decision had to be made in one day?
Neil Walsh 31:24
Yep. How very UN right? So, I went into my wife and said, right, just to put it into context. In 2015. We had left the Hague gone back to the UK for a fortnight, then moved to Malta, and we're now moving to Vienna, when she said yes, let's do this. So we moved country four times in four months in 2015. Which is marriage limitingly, stupid thing to do. So we took the took the decision, and we always take the decision together and where are we going? What we do, and here we are, five, four and a half years later.
Melissa Fleming 31:57
What is your wife like? I mean, she's gone through quite a lot with you.
Neil Walsh 32:00
Psychopath clearly, she's amazingly strong. I mean, we, we got together in 2006. And our first date was the night before I was diagnosed with the first cancer. Which I mean, in terms of a conversation starter. We had this date said you want to get together tomorrow and said, Yeah, I've got to go to the hospital. Don't worry about I'll give you a call afterwards. And not expecting everything that then happened. And I I rang her up and she's French. And what she tells me now is, I didn't understand the majority of what you said on the phone. Which I'm convinced is how we ended up married frankly, but then that's a whole other story. If you hear this I'm joking, of course. But we I called her after the hospital and said look, turns out I've cancer and I might die from this. So I suggest we have nothing further to do with each other because that is not fair on you. This is you don't want to be in this. Here. We are 16 no 15 years older? How did she reply? She was very sweet. She said, I've waited for someone like you all my life and not stopping it. Now, I have, I don't understand, I just don't understand. I really don't understand it. But, you know, so we went through cancer and the mass that I was in during the first period of that and taking 4 and 5 years to recover from that initial surgery, which was not easy at all. And I really believe I've said this to so many people, cancer or anything like cancer, a life limiting illness is much, much worse on the people around you than it is on you as the patient. For me, it's my disease, I can internalise it and I can cope with it. I seem to cope with the stress of all this without any real difficulty. And I think part of that is because of the previous job. I was used to taking on really high stress situations and making decisions that were life and death, usually for other people rather than myself but doing it at a moment's notice. And I think once you've learned the techniques for doing that, and I was very lucky In the child abuse workout had a psychologist that I had to see every three months. And she gave me some really good techniques for coping with that all the horrible stuff that I've seen and dealt with and I apply it to my personal life now, but for my wife, I don't know how she did it. I really don't know how she did it. We've talked about it sometimes. But I was saying that I have to have another big operation in a couple of weeks time. We had to sit down there her and I are coming out of the doctor and she said so I said, right, we're we got to get our game face on again. And it's telling the kids and explaining this and I recognise that some of the operate the operation that I'm going to have in a few few weeks time there is a risk of death in that. That's just the way it is and I recognised, I accept now, this is my life. There will be periods where I'm sick, and periods where I'm recovering from being sick. But that's just life. That's the way it is and compared to, you know, better than anybody, Melissa. from working in refugees. There are people who have got lives that wouldn't. I couldn't even begin to imagine how difficult their lives are. I live in a place with great health care. I'm lucky enough to have a job in a time where lots of people have lost their job. I have nothing to complain about.
Melissa Fleming 35:08
I wonder I mean, just reflecting on what you were saying, you know, you've seen a lot of the dark side of humanity and you are going personally through a health crisis that has gone on for years and years and years. How does your work and seeing you know, what's out there, influence your mental state somehow in a positive way. I'd like to ask you also about how you overcome some of the
Neil Walsh 35:35
I'm so lucky, I've every job I've ever done, I love I've loved my job because you can see where it has a real impact in people's lives, and where people are better for it, and where people are safer for it, and that they have privacy and human rights capabilities that they wouldn't have had before it. While still there, law enforcers and intelligence agencies and prosecutors have the ability to counter some of the biggest threats that they will hit them on in the crime, in the crime space, so I love it wouldn't change it for a moment.
Melissa Fleming 36:05
So Neil these days, you know what keeps you awake at night?
Neil Walsh 36:09
What keeps me awake at night, got so many things, sometimes my health stuff tends to keep me awake at night. And that's just physical. I sleep for 4 and a half hours a night. And until very recently that was usually interrupted, but a change medication has made that better but i've i've had disrupted sleep throughout my career. Because when you're working in counterterrorism and the phone rings all throughout the night with bad things happening, you have to make a judgement or a decision on there and then so you just become useful at least for me, I just became used to it and then so when having kids then the the challenge of kids who are awake at night and screaming at night, then it just became the norm. But now, I mean more. Philosophically, the things that keep me awake at night are I am genuinely worried about where we are as humanity right now. Where we are with The impact that COVID is having COVID is the great reset button of taking a step back and thinking, What the hell are we doing as a human race? What is it we need to do to survive this? This is a big warning to us. And if we don't heed that, then how stupid we are, we need to look at what makes a difference, what ought we be focusing on? And you know, what amazes me some of the work that we do day in day out, Melissa, where we see countries arguing with each other over things that sometimes it seems to me they've even forgotten what they're arguing on, but damn it, they are going to argue because that's what they have to do. But then you see them helping each other out to overcome the virus and sharing medical supplies and equipment and knowledge. And that's we all know it's very Shakespearean, but if you practice, we bleed, we all have the same stuff inside and that's what we ought to be about. What do we do to allow us to be safe to help our world to flourish and survive and if we, if we allow things to disintegrate and to go into really bad spaces where we lose multilateralism when we go into unilateralism. I think and this is my personal view is that that's an exceptionally dangerous space to be in.
Melissa Fleming 38:07
What makes you hopeful?
Neil Walsh 38:09
Well makes me hopeful is I'm you know, I'm incredibly lucky to have 4 beautiful, astoundingly erudite kids who have gone through a lot in their childhood, especially seeing what happens to me and my two older ones. That's the town the eight year old. They remember when we were in the Netherlands, that I had had a situation where I had to have emergency surgery because my insides had fallen apart. And they remember me getting trailed out of the house in an ambulance and screaming and drugs stuck in me and blue lights and sirens and flying off. And they remember that really clearly. And it will probably be one of the early memories for the my second child. So it's gas getting around all of that, that if we we all have things in our lives that don't go right. And we think Oh, I wish this was better. I didn't have this Just the way it is find someone who doesn't have something in their lives and we'll find a liar. Right? Everybody has something. And when we, you know, I, I'm, I love watching people I love just sitting in a cafe, and just watching the world go on around. And I learned this when I used to when I used to be doing surveillance as a cop, and you're taught how to watch and what to look for, but I just find it. The human condition is fascinating. But I think when you see it when we see kids, especially at a young age, we see they're born without racism. They are born without violence. They are born without hate. They are born without paranoia. They're born on all of these things. And that's why I still know and I think you still know it every day the sun comes up. And if we're lucky enough to be sitting in a place that's safe and dry and warm and sheltered. Our job is to try and give that to other people who don't have that. That's what people expect of us and we will get past this we will survive this we will overcome the virus. So we just have to sometimes take a step back and think, what can we do to be better people? How do we make our world a better place?
Melissa Fleming 40:09
On that note, Neil, thank you so much for joining us on Awake At Night and take care of yourself in your health. Most importantly
Neil Walsh 40:16
I will thank you for the opportunity in the honor to do it.
Melissa Fleming 40:31
Thank you for listening to awake at night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at the time of this terrible coronavirus pandemic. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org/awake-at-night. And you can find me on Twitter. I'm @melissafleming and you can follow Neil on @NeilWalsh_UN. And please spread the word about the series using the hashtag #awakeatnight. Subscribe to Awake At Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us. Thanks to the fantastic design and studio teams at the UN and to my producers Bethany Bell and Laura, Sheeter of Chalk and Blade. The sound design was by Pascal Wyse, and the original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah, and produced by Ben Hillier.