Gardaí have better things to do than get painted into a corner

It would be extraordinary if busy gardaí decided to do something about the alleged “crimes” of incitement to hatred, indecency, and criminal damage, the reasons given for the questioning of Conor Casby, painter of the offending items

WE know that the Government press secretary, Eoghan Ó Neachtain, complained to RTÉ about its broadcast of a news report on the hanging of caricature portraits of Brian Cowen in art galleries but what we don’t know is who complained to the Garda Siochana about it.

That is arguably more interesting and more important. Somebody must have made a complaint. It would be extraordinary if busy gardaí decided to do something about the alleged “crimes” of incitement to hatred, indecency, and criminal damage, the reasons given for the questioning of Conor Casby, painter of the offending items. Don’t they have work to do investigating what happened at our banks for example instead of bothering themselves with this?

Clearly, the complaint did not come from either the National Gallery or from the RHA, because the paintings were hung three weeks before they were reprinted in the Sunday Tribune and details of the stunt were published. RTÉ then broadcast its report on the Monday 9 O’Clock News and it seems that it was this that got the gardaí interested.

It was the television images that caused some upset, although that in itself could not have been the reason for the garda actions, because if it was then surely the RTÉ editors who authorised the broadcast would have to have been interviewed as well. It had to be the accompanying information, as to where they were hung in public, that had provided the excuse for the action that was taken.

Ray Darcy on his Today FM radio show had spoken about the painter having made contact with his programme and clearly the gardaí listen to him, because the following day the gardaí visited the Today FM studios to interview his producer Will Hanafin.

He said that the garda who interviewed him — and who had demanded access to phone and email records — said that he was doing so on the instructions of “the powers that be, who want action”.

As it happened, Casby “turned himself in”, voluntarily going to a garda station himself. Apparently he went without any legal adviser to accompany him, which displayed a certain amount of innocence. He answered questions for two hours, it has been reported, and had handed over the paintings and, for some reason, three others.

There was no reason for him to do so, as they were his private property, even if they were utterly obscene, as long as they had not been hung in public. I believe those additional paintings have been returned to him and the others should follow suit quickly. It would be an even bigger disgrace were Casby to face charges. It would not only be a waste of court time and money, but it would be an attack on freedom of expression.

The ideas that the paintings incited hatred or that a painting of a man in his exaggerated bare torso is indecent are both ludicrous. Fianna Fáil TD Mary O’Rourke came onto my radio programme to complain that it was unfair that there was no privacy left in the toilet. That was hilarious, as I had to point out to her that these were paintings, not photographs, and that they had not been posed either, so the Taoiseach’s privacy had not been undermined in any way. But the idea that the naked body is something that should be covered up , as if it is something to be ashamed of, would mean that many paintings, much better admittedly, would have to be removed from the walls of our galleries.

I’m glad that Mrs O’Rourke didn’t know of the magnificent Lucien Freud exhibition at the IMMA last year, because the genitals on display would have upset her greatly. Indeed, had the content had been widely known to some of the people who got upset on Cowen’s behalf it’s possible we’d have a real-life version of the Father Ted edition “The Passion of Saint Tibelus” on our hands.

You probably remember the episode where Ted and Dougal, on the instructions of their bishop, mount a protest against a so-called “dirty” movie being shown in the cinema on Craggy Island, thereby attracting so much attention that all the locals went for a look.

As with any art, people can make up their own minds as to whether it was any good or not — and if art is something that gets people talking, then it had some success. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the art though that dominated the debate, but the way the whole controversy was handled.

In the Dáil last Tuesday, Cowen said he had made no complaint nor asked anyone to do so on his behalf. I can only imagine that Cowen, if he had been aware of the newspaper or RTÉ reports, would not have been happy but, having muttered a few things about it or blown his top for a short time, would have forgotten about it quickly. He has plenty of other more serious things to worry about after all.

He also said that Ó Neachtain did not secure an apology as RTÉ had decided already to make one.

Make of that what you will. It might have been better had Ó Neachtain taken a few walks around the block to cool down before making his phone call to director general Cathal Goan — because he mightn’t have acted then — but it is easy enough to understand why he did what he did.

Should have RTÉ have apologised? In retrospect it could have handled the story better. It was newsworthy, but the tone of the broadcast was wrong. Saying “the Taoiseach is not believed to have posed” was too smart-aleck altogether. There was no need either to show the full-size portrait on the screen behind newsreader Eileen Dunne. A quick glimpse of the portrait during the news report would have sufficed. There is nothing wrong with an apology — and media organisations of all kinds are often far too slow to admit when they have done something wrong — but doing so only compounded the original error and made people sense the hand of the Government. That did nobody any favours.

However, it is a pity that Fine Gael decided to focus on the issue of alleged government interference with RTÉ over the issue rather than the role of the gardaí. From my time as a newspaper journalist, I’ve had experience of being cautioned and questioned at least four times over the years by gardaí because of stories that had appeared in newspapers. I was either the reporter or editor in the newspapers in question at each time. All the stories were accurate — and were in the public interest to print — but had embarrassed people in positions of public office.

I was never charged with any offences. In one case the garda who cautioned and questioned me told me afterwards privately that he was embarrassed to have done so but that he was under orders “from above”. He told me I was right to have refused to answer questions as to the Sunday Tribune’s sources (where I was editor at the time). He is now very senior in the organisation and I can’t imagine him being behind the Casby investigation. We may never know who made a complaint to the gardaí over Conor Casby, but I hope somebody does so to the Garda Ombudsman Commission and that the findings of any investigation are then made public.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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