But even though most people now know that the camera can lie (or at least be made to by its operator), film can still lay claim to a peculiar veracity - in its unedited form it appears as a dispassionate observer, innocent of motive. What's its angle? It doesn't have one.
Mike Atherton knows this better than most now - his career and reputation currently rest on his battle to persuade us that he has been more candid1 than the camera which watched him at work. The opposition was starkly demonstrated by the BBC on Monday night, which ran his verbal insistence that he hadn't applied any substance to the ball over pictures which appeared to show him doing exactly that. To a certain extent he may even be persuading himself - in his own account it was only after he saw the footage that he realised how serious his problem was.
The word cheat itself is a potent one, despite its childish associations and despite the fact that it doesn't necessarily imply a criminal act (it is often about our ability to police ourselves). It derives originally from 'escheat', a legal term that described the process by which a fief or property reverted to the lord when the tenant died without leaving a qualified successor. From there it came to mean a product of conquest or robbery and, by extension, the deceit involved in obtaining such goods.
It is also a word that lies well within the journalist's verbal no- go area, a territory guarded by nervous lawyers. It is conspicuous that Atherton himself is one of the few people who have felt confident enough to use the word 'cheat' with a specific application to himself - though in the course of a denial, naturally. Elsewhere in newspapers the idea has surfaced in the abstract ('Cheating is endemic to the game') or with anonymous force.
This hesitation isn't just legalistic though. It is a recognition that something more profound is at stake than a playground taunt2 . In his book, Total Poker, David Spanier quotes Puggy Pearson, the one- time world champion, on his own attitude to cheating. 'You draw a line,' he says, 'Everythin' over on this side of the line is wrong, and everythin' on this side is right. This is anything in life, doesn't matter what it is. The closer you stay to this line, the more successful you're gonna be.'
His remark is telling in two respects: first in extending the morality of the game to the rest of the world - a connection that has a proverbial antiquity ('He that will cheat at play, will cheat you anyway'); second, in acknowledging that there is no merit whatever for the competitive sportsman in keeping well clear of the dividing line.
And when that line is scuffed and unclear, as it is in cricket, questions of personal honesty and professional rectitude are almost bound to become confused. This is the narrow territory where sportsmanship (high- minded and virtuous) turns into gamesmanship (expedient and dodgy but never quite cheating).
Part of the problem for Atherton is that he doesn't play poker. After all, that is a game which rewards the covert and the cunning - the player who can dissemble with his face is going to do a lot better than the one whose features just cannot tell a lie. But cricket, absurd as it might seem, is supposed to be a repository of moral virtue, a ritual of honour conducted by white-flannelled celebrants.
It would be interesting to know what the reaction would have been if the England captain had come to the microphone on Sunday evening and explained that the whole thing had been a wind-up, a calculated attempt to rattle the South African batsman with the prospect of a wayward ball. Those blatant3 manoeuvres were meant to be seen, he might have argued, they were a pantomime intended to break his opponent's concentration. Not quite cricket, perhaps, but then so much in cricket isn't.
Instead, the word cheat, messily extending from the cricket ground into private life, obliged him to issue a categorical denial. In my view, Atherton could knowingly have rubbed dirt into the ball, knowingly pushed the rules to their very limits, still without being a cheat. That said, equivocation is perhaps the least that could be said of his behaviour since then.
1 From the Latin candidus, white, glistening.
2 Possibly from the French phrase tant pour tant, literally 'so much for so much' or tit for tat. This comes into English as taunt for taunt. The chronology of verb and noun throws some doubt on this.
3 Apparently invented by Spenser as the description of 'the blattant beast', his symbol of calumny.Reuse content