How an apology made a playful prank into a national farce

THE paintings of Brian Cowen were, at the very latest, completed some time in January, judging by an email to the Ray D’Arcy Show on Today FM on the 19th of that month.

The sender claimed to be a friend of the artist, and attached in the email one of the three nude portraits of the Taoiseach, of which details have since emerged.

It appears to have been sent so that Mr D’Arcy and his staff would publish the picture on the show’s website. They did not do this, however. Mr D’Arcy said yesterday they were simply occupied by other material at the time.

On March 7, somebody walked into the National Gallery in Dublin and hung one of the portraits among the National Portrait Collection, which features paintings of famous Irish people. The portrait depicted Mr Cowen sitting on the toilet with a roll of toilet paper in his hand. The prankster also hung a caption explaining that the portrait was “uncommissioned” by the National Gallery.

A second portrait, this time depicting Mr Cowen holding a pair of Y-fronts, was hung in similar circumstances in the RHA Gallery, also in Dublin.

In both instances, staff removed the portraits when they became aware of them.

Last Sunday, March 22, the Sunday Tribune reported details of the portrait pranks, and reported that gardaí had been called in by the National Gallery. According to the paper, officers had told National Gallery management it was unlikely the prankster had committed any type of criminal offence.

The report attracted international interest, and was carried in a number of papers overseas. None of that seems to have deeply irritated either the Taoiseach or Fianna Fáil — or if it did, they did not seem to make much of a fuss about it.

But when RTÉ carried a light-hearted report on the incident on its 9pm News bulletin on Monday night, it provoked an entirely different reaction.

The Government press secretary, Eoghan Ó Neachtain, rang the RTÉ director general, Cathal Goan, that same night on the Taoiseach’s behalf to make a complaint.

On Tuesday, Fianna Fáil TD Michael Kennedy put out a press release calling for Mr Goan to “consider his position”.

Shortly after 8pm on Tuesday, Government sources rang political correspondents to let them know RTÉ would be making an apology on that night’s 9pm news bulletin.

Sure enough, Eileen Dunne read out an apology on behalf of RTÉ, saying the broadcaster regretted any offence caused to Mr Cowen or his family.

At that point, it must have seemed like a victory to the Government.

But by yesterday morning, it became clear that the complaint had backfired — as this was now making the news and keeping the story running.

It forced the Government into sending out its own email yesterday afternoon clarifying its stance on the issue.

It said Mr Ó Neachtain had complained not because of the facts in the report but the manner in which the report was presented.

RTÉ had asked an art expert to give his opinion on one of the hoax portraits — and the Government said that this was among Mr Ó Neachtain’s grounds for complaint.

He also complained about the fact that RTÉ conducted a “vox pop”, seeking the views of members of the public.

“The press secretary made it clear he was not complaining about the factual elements of the story... his complaint related purely to how the report was presented and over-sensationalised the incident.”

The email also insisted that Mr Ó Neachtain had not been acting on the instructions of either the Taoiseach or a minister.

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