Was it a reality show or a comedy quiz programme? Conrad Black was invited into the Have I Got News For You house at the weekend, a pantomime villain among those who knew how to play the game and desperate not to be evicted from polite society. Dramatised documentary or satirical fiction?
The Thick Of It concluded its run on Saturday night with the downfall of communications chief Malcolm Tucker in a hail of expletives, representing the dissolution of the long-established nexus between politics and the media.
Television viewers can be forgiven for feeling a little confused these days, as the lines between what's real and what's not become increasingly blurred. And, especially, what are we meant to think when we see the ghastly clips of Jimmy Savile with young girls on his knee, and what we once viewed as light entertainment on a Saturday night is now presented as prima facie evidence of evil?
The appearance of the ennobled former convict Conrad Black on HIGNFY was treated as a bona fide news story, and at the end of a week of media appearances in which he bristled and blustered, there was an understandable amount of interest in how Lord Black would deal with the high-voltage satire of Messrs Hislop and Merton.
Both sides could claim a bloodless victory, but Lord Black had his new book to plug, so he would doubtless see the free advertising a very equitable trade-off for a few snarky barbs from some Metropolitan smartarses. With each appearance Lord Black made, his fusilade of statistics about the American justice system rose in pitch and ferocity. North Korea had a fairer legislature. America locked up more people than any civilised country. He'd rather have been tried in Paraguay.
The heart of his assertion of innocence was that America has a conviction rate of 99.5 per cent, almost twice that of the UK, and that the odds are heavily stacked in favour of successful prosecution. No interviewer challenged his barrage of facts about the iniquities of the US justice system, so we have to assume it's true. But how does that make him innocent? Isn't a high conviction rate a sign that the police and prosecutors are doing their job properly? And just because some people are unfairly incarcerated, why should we presume he is one of them?
Meanwhile, the internal organs of politics, and its relationship with the media, were exposed to public scrutiny by Armando Iannucci in his peerless series, The Thick Of It. The penultimate programme, set in a public inquiry established to investigate the relationship between politics and the media, was a masterly piece of work, and the denouement, which saw the foul-mouthed Tucker defenestrated and left to rue the crumbling of the old certainties of political life, made for gripping television. And was so very different from real life.