Thomas Sutcliffe: Our uneasy conscience as we watch Ms Boyle

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It's been intriguing listening to the Prime Minister recently boasting – I don't think the word is too strong – about his "presbyterian conscience" and his "moral compass". On the Today programme yesterday he was at pains to remind us that as long ago as 2007 he'd been making noises about reform and that now it was vitally important to get down to the task as soon as possible. His manner even managed to suggest that Evan Davis was personally delaying the cleansing process by bothering him with impertinent questions.

Why he hadn't paid a lot more attention to his moral compass in the intervening months he didn't explain – and the fatal gap between good intentions and firm action couldn't help but raise the suspicion that it might be one of those compasses with painted dials. You have to ask the public which direction North is in before it can actually be used.

Perhaps this is unfair though – because it's in the nature of scandals that they loom a great deal larger after they've been exposed than before. It's the political equivalent of that thing you see written on rear-view mirrors: "Objects May Appear Larger Than They Are". Before the revelations the Prime Minister was barely aware that the question of reform was urgent. Now it's looming down like a juggernaut with failed brakes, and he has to pretend that he knew it was there all along.

We're all subject to this kind of retrospective clarity of vision – and I suspect that Susan Boyle's experiences over the weekend are going to prompt a bit more. This is, classically, one of those scandals that isn't really a scandal until it breaks – and we begin to wonder why we were so quiescent and unflustered before it did.

It is hardly news, after all, that television programmes like Britain's Got Talent and Pop Idol are ready to utilise the mentally fragile for reasons of public entertainment. Just think about the early rounds of all such elimination talent shows, which depend on a calculated blend of fresh hopefuls and the deliriously hopeless.

It is clear that some of those taking part are delusional and that others don't fully grasp that the part they play in the enterprise is to provide mockery-fodder for the judges. And yet – lulled by the thin saving grace of voluntary participation – we watch these participants with a mix of gaping amazement and uneasy conscience.

In the 18th century, you had to go out for pleasures like this. You could pay a penny to visit Bedlam (or Bethleham mental hospital) and chortle at the deranged. You were even allowed to poke them with a stick if they failed to caper or roar in a satisfactory way – though these days we have Simon Cowell to do that for us – and can ease our disquiet about the ethics of such a spectacle by reassuring ourselves that none of these people are under restraint. They choose to take part and, in so choosing, sign up to the loss of dignity that often comes with participation. Even so, one wonders what you would have to look or behave like for the producers of such programmes to say to themselves "You know...I'm not sure we should really expose this person to be laughed at".

That was, let us remind ourselves, what everybody in the audience thought Susan Boyle was there for before she opened her mouth – and what the judges' smirks and raised eyebrows encouraged everyone at home to think in the edited version of the show (however much they secretly knew about the voice that was about to emerge).

The novelty with Susan Boyle was that she sang well enough to get through to the final, elevating her from temporary comic relief into a real person whose health and well-being might arouse our protective sympathy.

I doubt very much that she is the first participant to have been left in a state of anxiety by the stress and exposure of such programmes, though she is probably the first person whose reaction has had any kind of widespread media coverage. And the moral compass of the programme's makers shouldn't be calibrated by how they treat her, now that she's world famous, but how they behaved with the real no-hopers, before anyone was looking on censoriously.

A cautionary tale of the fallen Madonna

I can't say I was astonished that Peter Howson's nude double portrait of Madonna and Guy Ritchie failed to find a buyer at an auction over the weekend. It's always dangerous to judge a work of art from newspaper reproduction, so it's hard to speak of it as a painting. As an image of two celebrities, though, it is so vigorously unflattering that it's almost enough to make you drop your newspaper.

"Maybe it generated too much publicity and people were put off by the hype," said a spokesman for the auctioneer. Hmm, maybe. Or maybe people were just put off by the painting, which – rather admirably perhaps – appears designed to repudiate any trivial reason for acquiring it. Fans presumably wouldn't hanker after an image like this, which doesn't exactly correspond to the airbrushed public profile of its subjects. And while the subjects themselves might now have a motive for exhibiting their other halves in such gruesome light, they can't really do it without sacrificing their own vanity too.

I note that the National Portrait Gallery only has some Eric Watson photographs of Madonna and no image of our pre-eminent geezer auteur at all. Perhaps it's time for an inspired gift so that this powerful record of Hello! culture can be saved for the nation.

Gurning Murray is too highly strung

I don't know whether Stuart Higgins, the former Sun editor, is still on a retainer to improve Andy Murray's media profile, but I hope there is someone in Team Murray – the caravan of coaches, fitness trainers and clay-court sliding technique gurus – who might have a quiet word with him about grace in victory.

It's all very well gurning like a maniac while you're still climbing the lower rungs of the world rankings – and victories still seem faintly incredible – but now that he's more of a fixture at the higher levels would it be too much to hope for a bit of modest dignity at the moment of triumph?

Murray's wincing rictus and clenched fist manage to combine aggression with an unattractive solipsism (what I look like to others doesn't matter). I don't think we should expect immediate results if a decorum coach was added to the roster – it will be some time, I expect, before Murray will match Roger Federer in terms of tramline demeanour. But, as he edges closer to his first Grand Slam win, he'd better take the matter in hand.

t.sutclffe@independent.co.uk

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