A college lecturer was one of three people convicted this week for deception in the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? trial. A jury concluded that Tecwen Whittock's strategic coughing during the television quiz helped a contestant to answer questions and pocket the jackpot prize. No one likes a cheat, and £1 million is a lot of money. But that should not blind us to the sinister implications or to the extreme absurdity of this trial.
The trial and its coverage have missed a fundamental point: this is just a TV quiz, just a game - and people cheat in games. It's called "gamesmanship", not criminal fraud. People who cheat at games can expect to lose the prize, but not their reputations, their careers, their liberties.
It was one thing for Celador, the show's production company, to call foul and not pay up. But it was quite another thing for the Crown Prosecution Service to try to jail the guests Celador have been soliciting for years as unpaid light-entertainment fodder. To whisk the contestants from the artificial fantasy world of television to a very "real" criminal court with real prison cells below is, in the true sense of the word, unreal.
Here, TV's incursion into "the real" enters the most extreme territories of postmodern media theory, into Jean Baudrillard's visions of a terminal zombie culture unable to distinguish between TV images and reality. This is more disturbing than The Truman Show, the film about a man whose life was made, unbeknownst to him, into a reality TV show.
Few have asked why the Crown has become embroiled in the on-screen affairs of a TV show. The police and the courts should focus their attention on events in the real world, not in artificial ones. The TV company chose to risk a million-pound prize on its show, in a world it constructed. The stakes are high in casinos, but they are internally policed, and cheats are escorted off the premises and barred, not prosecuted.
But now that a legal precedent is set, perhaps there will be retrospective prosecutions of Generation Game contestants illegally prompted by audience cries of "Cuddly toy!" when recalling items on the conveyor belt. Should the police be called every time whispered advice from a friend helps someone win a CD on a radio phone-in quiz? The prize is bigger on Millionaire, but the principles are the same - the law is the law, a game is a game, and points mean prizes. A huge jackpot makes things more exciting, but it does not transform a TV quiz into a real-world event comparable to a bank robbery.
The trial marks a monumental incursion of a TV show into "the real". With a sinister flourish mixing Kafkaesque fiction and Baudrillardian media theory, the real has been penetrated by a TV quiz emerging out of the screen to seek retribution against its own dramatis personae. It represents a dark and surreal triumph for the simulacra in asserting and "proving beyond reasonable doubt" that it is indistinguishable from the real.
Even more worrying, it announces the legal system's complicity in applying the laws regulating everyday society to a construct. The tabloids have predictably fed like vultures on the case throughout, baying for the blood of those who have dared sully the star-kissed fantasy of peak-time television with the grubby, greedy morals of the real.
The defendants are now left to contemplate their broken reputations and lives, as well as their postmodern odyssey from the glitz of light entertainment fluff to the menacing purgatory of a real courtroom drama.
Playing a game on television has ended like a grotesque horror movie, where, like the characters in the movie The Ring, they have watched an ominous image loom up and out of the TV screen to devour them.
A TV documentary about the whole affair will be screened very soon. Oh, yes, for real.