When two Dublin art galleries discovered nude portraits of the Irish Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, hung on its walls, the story was immediately picked up by several media outlets.
The Sunday Tribune, a Dublin paper, covered the story, as did RTE, the national television broadcaster. The story might have died there. But a groveling apology from RTE over its report on the paintings, plus a police investigation into the offending mystery artist, whose identity was the subject of much speculation, has ensured that it has kept going. A Facebook group in support of the artist had over 4,000 members as of Friday.
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.
The artist's guerilla tactics for exposing the paintings were successful, but didn't last too long. When a museum visitor asked staff about the painting in the Royal Hibernian Academy, it was immediately taken down. At the National Gallery, the nude was noticed 20 minutes after it was hung, and was promptly removed and handed over to police.
Then the Taoiseach's (Irish Prime Minister's) office made a complaint to RTE, which issued a formal apology.
RTE, which included shots of the portraits in its report on the story, 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 told an Irish newspaper that 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 refers to the episode as "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." Cavanagh wrote, "This needs to be screamed from the rooftops: the very freedom to express dissent and poke fun at those in power is being attacked."
And Cavanagh is doing just that: selling T-shirts on his Web site that depict a naked Brian Cowen with the caption "Censor This." (All proceeds go to the Rape Crisis Network Ireland.)
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.
Facebook groups have come to Casby's defense. A group called "Leave Conor Casby Alone!" has been set up, which had over 4,000 members by Friday. One member, Suzanne Finglas, wrote on the group's wall: "I think this is very typical of the current Irish government. We have huge issues to be faced and the overstetched police resources are pursuing this ridiculous matter - what a joke!" Another Facebook group is called "Conor Casby for President." (This had 15 members by Friday.)
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 it was the two Dublin galleries who had made a complaint to the police, and that the police investigation had nothing to do with him.
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.