Leading Article: Taste should reel in the video extremes

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The banning of a video, Everyday Operations, showing NHS patients under the knife and selling for pounds 12.99, is a resonant and difficult event. The video sounds disgusting, offering 53 relentless minutes of flesh-slicing, the sort of material that most people flinch from when it comes in brief glimpses in documentaries or hospital dramas. We admire surgeons partly because they can do their work without passing out - "clinical detachment" is the phrase. Yet this film of eye operations, gynaecological probings, brain surgery and so on, seems to have been made for a kind of entertainment. Its makers defend it as "serious education" but this begs the question, education for what? Doctors don't need it. Very few patients could stomach the thought of seeing their own operations played back to them. So it seems likely that, if it were released, this film would become, in practice, "education'' for strange-minded voyeurs - which would be, as the British Medical Association's ethics committee put it, "deeply distasteful''.

As a one-off story it would be bizarre enough. Whether or not Everyday Operations is widely shown will be decided in the courts. But it is a resonant story, a story of our times, because it follows hard on the heels of other distasteful use of real-life footage for entertainment. Last summer a video was released of executions. There have been commercial videos garnered from surveillance cameras, from police car chases and from official footage of the aftermath of murders. As we report today, plans are under way for a video of prostitutes in action.

And these are merely the controversial examples of a much wider use of home videos, surveillance cameras and commercially shot material from news teams that is making its way into the entertainment market. As the video becomes ubiquitous throughout the richer societies, covering much of our public lives (in our offices, shopping streets, parks and sporting facilities) and in many of our private and family lives too, it is very hard to imagine this trend being reversed. It isn't that we are simply a society of voyeurs. We are also, it seems, a society of exhibitionists: the things people are prepared to discuss publicly or have themselves filmed doing would baffle and outrage our grandparents. (And quite a few of our parents and children, too.)

Where will it stop? With people filming their sex lives and selling the result? No, that is already old hat, though not yet in the local video store. With the arrival in Britain of the televised celebrity court case, OJ Simpson-style? May God, or at least the Lord Chancellor, preserve us. Whatever the limits of possible intrusion are - death, operations, disaster - we are, it seems, pretty near them already.

Part of the reason is the dispersal of broadcasting power that has occurred because of technology. In the old days, the broadcasting world was simple and politically controllable. BBC and ITN news teams regularly shoot pictures of war and disaster, for instance, which they deem unbroadcastable. But had they gone ahead and broadcast them, offending enough MPs, they would have faced a home secretary with ample powers to punish them. Now satellites have the power to beam hundreds of channels down, cutting across national boundaries. The Internet has created a cyber-bazaar through which the foulest and most degraded videos and fantasies can be exchanged. And the comparatively crude technology of the video-recorder, combined with hire shops on every town corner, provides a huge consumer and retail network for the lesser stuff.

On the face of it, politicians who try to intervene are spitting in the wind. We are a filmed society, saturated by recording. And if the film is available in a free-market country, it will be marketed by someone to someone. Humans are an incorrigibly nosy lot - part of the reason for our relative success on this planet - and it is a little too late to legislate the trait away. So if the material is going to be readily available, and the market for it isn't going to disappear, isn't the struggle against this form of voyeurism and exploitation a forlorn one? Are not politicians talking about taste an anachronism in the free-choice technological democracy of the 1990s?

We certainly shouldn't be frightened of curiosity and we shouldn't think that everyone's standards must be the same. But an idea of taste is very useful even to diverse societies, though precisely what ''distasteful'' means will change all the time. ''Taste'' does in a delicate, private, cheap and subtle way what law and government do so expensively and crudely: it sets social limits, helping us rub along together, and so improves human happiness. So to shun these films, harangue their makers and ridicule the people who buy them is useful. Nor are politicians entirely defenceless; laws on privacy and copyright have some effect, as have the residual powers of censorship, which have kept some of the most degrading material away from casual cinema-goers and video-store browsers. Absolute censorship is impossible and undesirable. So although the battle to control the worst excesses of technologically advanced voyeurism cannot be won, it is a battle worth fighting. Lose your sense of what is tasteful and you are a lesser creature.