A car salesman taped himself raping a young woman, we guess, to use the tape as private entertainment. A famous rock-and-roll star reportedly hid a camcorder in a women’s bathroom, apparently for the same reason. Various people have taped their lovemaking without the consent or knowledge of their partners. If we can apply the phrase “video voyeur” to anyone, we should reserve it for people like these.

A voyeur, after all, is one who derives pleasure from secretly watching sexual objects or acts. A video voyeur must be one who uses video gear in the pursuit of such illicit pleasure. The press and tabloid television, however, sometimes speak carelessly. They have lately named video voyeurs people as diverse as these: men and women who tape crimes and send their tapes to the police, a young man who tapes burning houses or auto accidents and sends his tapes to a TV news show, and a man who tapes hurricanes for scientific research. These people have not spied on others for titillation.

Why label them voyeurs? The answer grows more from the heart than from the head. With the proliferation of camcorders, a fear arises from down deep that we are surrendering our privacy. People grow suspicious of the eye behind the viewfinder: “What have you been looking at? Why the telephoto lens? Where are you taking that tape?” They may react in the anger of those assaulted: “Get that thing out of my face!” An accident victim may resent the videomaker who shows up before the ambulance, and anyone might wonder who is taping us without our knowledge. The guy taping a fire is not a voyeur. Still, if he obstructs their work or makes them self-conscious in the performance of their duty, firemen might call him that. It’s not accurate, but it carries the right negative emotion. Working firemen will not fuss with language. They’ll also call him things even less accurate and more to the point.

If videomakers do not learn when to ask permission, they might provoke an anti-camcorder reaction. If we do not learn when to stand aside and drop the camera, we may hear a cry for legislation. In fact, a few are already crying for it. This follows from a cosmic law. In the moral universe legislation increases as a common sense of decency decreases. You can observe it in action for yourself any day in any newspaper: the manners-to-law conversion principle. Through the last hundred years, the courts and production professionals have worked out a body of law and ethics guiding the use of cameras. These rules are meant to preserve both the public’s right to know and the individual’s right to privacy. It’s time new videomakers started learning the ethical ropes. Privacy is a hard-won freedom. We will have to struggle to preserve it while we try to increase knowledge with a more democratic television.

Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.

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