The Irish national broadcaster RTE is at the center of a row over the "naked portraits" of Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen.
The episode began last week when two rather unusual portraits — one showing the nation’s leader on the toilet, and another showing him holding his Y-fronts — appeared in the National Gallery and the Royal Hibernian Gallery.
RTE, the national television broadcaster, covered the story, complete with video of the offending pictures and most of the country had a good laugh. A funny moment in otherwise bleak times.
The story might well have died there. But a groveling apology from RTE over its report on the paintings, plus a police investigation rocketed the story to the top of the news. As of March 27, a search on Google for "naked Brian Cowen" was returning 60,400 hits while a new Facebook group Leave Conor Casby Alone has nearly 4,000 members.
The portraits, which were both by artist Conor Casby, were taken down as soon as staff were alerted and handed over to police. However, both portraits were on display for about 20 minutes.
The story made the rounds in Dublin and eventually made it onto the flagship Nine O'Clock News on RTE. However,Cowen's office made a complaint to RTE, which then issued a formal, and humbling, apology.
RTE, which had included shots of the portraits in its original report, said on air: "RTE News would like to apologize for any personal offence caused to Mr. Cowen or his family for any disrespect shown to the office of the Taoiseach.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cowen told IrishCentral that it was his press secretary, Eoghan O Neachtain who made the complaint of his own initiative, adding that it wasn’t at the Taoiseach’s request. O Neachtain said the report “went beyond the news values of RTE.”
Michael Kennedy, one of Cowen’s party members, and a Member of Parliament for North Dublin, said that the director general for RTE, Cathal Goan, should “consider his position.”
Then RTE, which is funded by the taxpayer, faced accusations that it was being “craven” to the Taoiseach. And its kowtowing to Cowen drew the ire of the Irish blogosphere, which is now calling the whole affair “picturegate.”
“Respect the office? More like give the story more legs than it otherwise would have gotten. Move on to bigger issues? Hah, a government more interested in covering Cowen’s modesty,” said Cain O’Flaherty of IrishElection.Com.
Allan Cavanagh, a caricaturist and a
blogger with a Web site called Caricatures Ireland
, wrote one blog post entitled, “The Taoiseach has no clothes and RTE has no balls: the Brian Cowen Nude Caricature.”
The Taoiseach’s spokeswoman refused to comment when asked if he regretted the RTE complaint, which gave the story a new lease of life.
The story didn’t end with the RTE apology. Now it has emerged that the Irish police have been investigating the case – and that they may charge a man who admitted hanging the offending portraits. He could be prosecuted for criminal damage after CCTV showed him putting glue on to the gallery walls to hang up the pictures.
The identity of the mystery artist has finally been revealed: he is Conor Casby, an art teacher from Dublin. Casby has said that although he painted the pictures, he wasn't responsible for hanging them up. It has been reported that this was done by two other men.
The story was featured on Irish radio station called Today FM, which had been contacted by Casby. The station said that one of their producers had been question by the Irish police, but that no information about the artist was handed over. The police then threatened to get a search warrant, Ray D'Arcy, the presenter of the Today FM show, said.
An opposition Member of Parliament, Charlie Flanagan of Fine Gael, called the police investigation a “gross affront to freedom of expression and a waste of police time,” and said that Cowen’s reaction “to what amounted to satire is completely over the top.”
"Today FM has clearly come under pressure to hand over emails about this matter while RTÉ News was obviously been browbeaten into a groveling apology,” Flannagan continued. “The way this matter has been handled is more reminiscent of Russia in the 1930s than Ireland in 2009.”
The Taoiseach’s spokeswoman told IrishCentral.com that Cowen had nothing to do with the police investigation and that it had been instigated by the galleries.
Meanwhile, Conor Casby, the artist who caused all the fuss in the first place has told Today FM that he wants to draw an end to the episode – after he sells the now famous “nudes” for charity.