Gardaí visit radio station in Cowen painting inquiry

Wed, Mar 25, 2009, 00:00

Fresh life was breathed into the controversy over nude paintings of the Taoiseach which were found hanging in two Dublin art galleries after it emerged that a Garda detective had visited the offices of a national radio station looking for emails it had received from the artist.

The news came after RTÉ apologised for a television news report concerning the nude portraits of Mr Cowen. It said it had received a number of complaints about the item on Monday’s Nine Newsincluding one from the Taoiseach’s office. The report did not run on subsequent television bulletins and was taken down from the RTÉ website.

Government press secretary Eoghan O’Neachtain has admitted it was him that made the complaint to RTÉ, but he said he was not acting on the instruction of the Taoiseach or any other minister.

He said he complained about the manner in which the report was presented and especially about asking an art expert to give an opinion on what was clearly a hoax painting. He also objected to the introduction to the news report which stated that “it is not thought the Taoiseach posed for the picture”.

An RTÉ News spokeswoman said the decision not to rebroadcast the offending news item on the News on Twoprogramme was taken before the complaint by Mr Ó Neachtain was received.

“It was decided by senior management immediately after it was shown on the nine o’clock news that it was inappropriate and in bad taste. After that we got several calls of complaint about it one of which from Eoghan Ó Neachtain who was not acting on the instruction of the Taoiseach or any other minister,” he said.

A detective from Pearse Street Garda visited Today FM on Tuesday and demanded all emails from the artist including images of the portraits which had been sent to the Ray Darcy Show.

On his show yesterday morning, Darcy said the show’s producer Will Hanafin had spoken with the detective who had told him that “the powers that be want action taken”.

Mr Hanafin said he was told that the gardaí wanted the name and contact details of the artist so they could caution him. The detective said the artist was being investigated in connection with three charges in connection with incitement to hatred, indecency and criminal damage - for hammering a nail into the wall of the National Gallery.

When Mr Hanafin declined to pass the information on, he was told a warrant would have to be sought to get access to the show’s emails.

The paintings of Mr Cowen appeared in the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) gallery and the National Gallery of Ireland almost three weeks ago. He was shown holding his underpants in one painting and a toilet roll in the other.

A researcher on the show has been in phone and email contact with the 35-year-old artist, named as Conor Casby, since the middle of January when a photographer sent in an image of one of his paintings. Earlier this week, the artist confirmed to the show that the paintings were his but he denied hanging them in the galleries himself.

Mr Hanafin told The Irish Timeshe was “totally shocked” to be confronted by a garda over the matter. He said in “absolutely no circumstances could this be considered an appropriate use of Garda resources. It seems to me that the powers that be have clearly lost their sense of humour”.

Fine Gael Justice Spokesperson, Charlie Flanagan, criticised the Garda decision to demand emails relating to the artist from Today FM.

“At a time when the majority of gangland murders remain unsolved, to have Garda spending their time investigating what amounted to a practical joke that offended the Taoiseach’s ego is a scandalous waste of resources," he said.

“Today FM has clearly come under pressure to hand over emails about this matter while RTE News was obviously been browbeaten into a grovelling apology. The way this matter has been handled is more reminiscent of Russia in the 1930s than Ireland in 2009."

Mr Casby was questioned by gardaí yesterday after he voluntarily accompanied investigators to Pearse Street Garda Station. While a file is being prepared for the DPP is it not thought likely that any charges will be brought.

The Garda Press Office said it had no information on any contacts with the Ray Darcy Show and declined to comment on the status of the investigation, other than to say it was ongoing.

In a statement read out on Tuesday’s Nine News, the national broadcaster apologised “for any personal offence caused to Mr Cowen or his family and for any disrespect shown to the office of the Taoiseach”. The story was re-published on the RTE website with the apology attached.

Hundreds of blogs and sites such as Twitter were hopping with news of the controversy throughout yesterday with most web users condemning what they described as the censorship of RTÉ and expressing amazement at the national broadcaster’s apology. What was viewed as an over-the-top reaction from the Garda also came in for much criticism and a youtube clip of the original news item had been watched by over three thousand people by yesterday afternoon.