It is perfectly understandable that Brian Cowen's wife Mary was upset when she saw both the original story about the naked portraits of her husband in last week's Sunday Tribune and the news item about the guerrilla art prank on RTÉ's nine o'clock news the following night.

Satire is cruel and this portrayal of the taoiseach was most unflattering. The family's hurt has to be accepted, though others who have also been the target of some tough satire themselves believe it's healthier to take the joke (however low-grade) on the chin, rather than expose yourself to further ridicule.

RTÉ's biggest star Pat Kenny ("I would have bought it and hung it in the loo") showed a lot of courage when he rightly questioned on air the decision by the nine o'clock news team to apologise for their accurate and innocuous report because of the offence it caused the taoiseach's family and the failure to show respect to the office of the taoiseach.

That apology, as we now know, followed a heated conversation in Irish about "an túin" of the news report between government press secretary Eoghan Ó Neachtain and RTÉ director general Cathal Goan. Kenny was the only insider publicly to raise the issue of RTE's licence fee subvention and wondered whether internalised fears over the government's future attitude to it may have coloured the statement of regret. It is highly likely this is the case.

Personal hurt is one matter, and the media has a duty to take it into account. But for the country's most senior politician, lampooning goes with the territory. In fact it is an intrinsically democratic part of the job that the taoiseach is a target of criticism and, yes, ridicule, in the form of serious analysis of his policies or through satirical cartoons.

It has nothing to do with the quality of the debate or the paintings either, as John Waters has argued. It's about the freedom to express yourself, even if it is just by having the brass neck to hang a cartoon among the august portraits of the National Gallery. And it's about the freedom of the national broadcaster to choose whatever form it wishes to report the story. As the writer of an Irish entry into the Eurovision song contest, Waters must surely understand that good taste and talent have nothing to do with this.

There are procedures for dealing with a complaint such as failing to respect the office of taoiseach, and if the independence of RTÉ means anything, particularly when the issue is not one of fact but of tone, those procedures should be scrupulously observed by both sides, in this case through the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

The supine reaction of RTÉ's news division is a worry because the public can see that the storm over the portraits is a diversion. If RTÉ folds on a story as stupid as this, what about more fundamental issues? The waste of state resources, and particularly garda time, in a year when there have been nine gangland murders, is also unjustified.

This country's reputation internationally is important, but it relies on how this government frames the budget in nine days' time, and on that alone. The government's reputation at home relies solely on providing a strategy that will give people the confidence to start spending again so we can grow ourselves out the deflationary spiral into which we are steadily being sucked.

If the government could just get that message, we would all be delighted. Because, nine months after this cabinet took office and facing into the toughest budget ever, with the projected tax take shrinking by €300m a week this year, we don't care about their reaction to stupid paintings. We want a reverse thrust that will eject us from the black hole at top speed.