In years to come, the “Portraitgate” saga will be used all over the world in PR classes and tutorials as THE prime example of how not to handle a minor inconvenience.
A mildly interesting story which would already have been forced out of the news by other events has become a world-wide story out of which Brian Cowen comes across very badly.
He himself has said very little about it, and it’s possible that he is looking on in horror as a succession of people trying to help him simply make matters worse, creating an image of him and his government as humourless, draconian, anti-democratic and completely out of touch with what is really important.
Much of this image is, of course, accurate. You have only to watch his bad-tempered, hectoring attitude to the opposition, his goverment’s habit of announcing policy at press conferences rather than in the Dáil, and his refusal so far to bring in any change to the number of his army of Junior Ministers and Committee Chairs to realise that. But the sheer ham-fisted, over-the-top reaction of his fellow TDs, RTE and the Gardaí has re-inforced this image, and has caused it to be broadcast worldwide.
TDs of all parties have circled the wagons and united in condemning this “insult”. By doing so, they reveal how insular, precious and thin-skinned they have all become. Senator Donie Cassidy says that “the Taoiseach is a public figure, but his wife and family are not, and everybody should bear that in mind.” Only a person far too long in politics could come out with tripe like this. Everyone has a family, and if we followed Donie’s logic no public figure would ever be criticised.
Never mind the corrupt wrong-doers like Seanie Fitz or Fingleton. Plenty of other public figures often face ridicule. Remember the dog’s abuse (much of it from TDs) heaped upon Gerry Ryan, simply because he didn’t want to take a pay-cut? Or upon Steve Staunton, just for being a poor soccer manager? Or even, to be fair, upon John “Bloggers Can’t Write” Waters, purely because he wrote a dreadful Eurovision entry? All of these people have families too. Did Donie, or any other TD, have anything to say about that?
And then, oh God, there was the Garda reaction – swift and effective, with a detective, no less, being sent to a radio station to demand details of emails from the artist. Did no-one see how this was going to look in a country where there are now daily shootings, where ordinary people were chased and beaten by drunken scum in Tipperary on St Patricks Day, and where people whose greed has brought this country to its knees face no charges at all?
And having caught their man so quickly, they charged him with … “incitement to hatred”. Ah, here. It’s a picture of a man on a toilet, for God’s sake. Inciting who, and how?
Last year Fine Gael TD Leo Varadkar suggested that non-nationals who lose their jobs should be offered money to go home. The possible reaction of some members of the public to those who might turn down such an offer and remain here drawing the dole didn’t seem to occur to him, or to bother him. Noel O’Flynn and Ned O’Keeffe have called for a review of the issuing of work permits to non-EU citizens, clearly implying that they’re taking our jobs. Conor Lenihan made his famous “kebabs” remark in relation to Turkish workers, and was rewarded by being made Minister for Integration (and people said Bertie had no sense of humour).
Are any of these cases “incitement to hatred”? Apparently not. Lively political debate, apparently it’s called, when they say stuff.
If Fianna Fáil have PR advisors they should fire them. The government press secretary, whose complaint to RTE was so badly thought through, should either seriously apologise to the party or go too.
The original paintings weren’t especially funny. They certainly weren’t satire – if the toilet roll had, say, the Plain People of Ireland written on it, implying Cowen wipes his arse with us, that might have been satire. But that doesn’t matter anymore.
Thanks to the stupidity of the reaction, Irish political life has ridiculed itself far more effectively than any clever satire could.