How long does a moment last?
No, it’s not the opening of a romantic novel or a prompt for mindfulness meditation; I’ve been wondering because of the recent news coverage of the e-bike crash in Cardiff.
Numerous news outlets accompanied CCTV footage of the bike being followed by a police van with the statement that it was filmed ‘moments’ before the collision, even though the actual crash site was half a mile away and the published timelines suggest an elapsed time of roughly 90 seconds to two minutes - long enough for the riders to evade the police by passing through pedestrian-only access to another street where the van could not follow.
Oddly enough, a ‘moment’ was once formally recognised as one-fortieth of a solar hour, which averages out at 90 seconds (medieval Europeans, following the practice of Ancient Rome, divided the time between sunrise and sunset to give 12 hours, the length of which varied according to the season). The advent of mechanical clocks made the unit obsolete but the word endured, if in a more flexible sense.
These days, you are most likely to encounter it in phrases like “take a moment to consider...”, “the moment of truth” or “he hesitated for a moment on the edge...” and in the word ‘momentary’; substitute ‘90 seconds’ in any of these and they lose their implied fleeting nature (this also seems as good a place as any to cite the somewhat disturbing landing announcement from USA airline pilots; “We expect to be on the ground momentarily”).
Consciously or not, I suspect that most viewers or readers would understand from today’s usage that ‘moments’ implies a matter of seconds, not a minute and a half or more, yet multiple news reports - including the BBC TV news at 6 and 10 - persisted in using the word to accompany the images, effectively suggesting that the police van was in close proximity to the bike when the fatalities occurred (interestingly, the Mail altered it to ‘minutes’ some time after publication). There have been other subtle linguistic variations too; the words ‘chased’ and ‘pursued’ appear in most sources, while a relative few have gone with ‘followed’ and ‘tailed’ (surely more accurate, given the lack of lights and sirens in the broadcast clips).
It’s often hard to tell whether the wording of reports is original or the result of the common ‘churnalism’ method of recycling the output of other news sources. Even allowing for this, the prevalence of words like ‘chase’ and ‘pursuit’ suggests there may be an agenda at work, particularly given the widespread media use of a photo from 2016 showing the boys as young children (and, gruesomely, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the widely published picture of the two 10-year-old girls whose murders in Soham sparked a massive outpouring of national grief in 2002) rather than their more up-to-date images, artfully costumed and posed to suggest gangland culture.
It’s fair to say that Britain’s police as a whole have not exactly covered themselves in glory recently (although, as with any public institution - including my own field, education - I feel one should say a word on behalf of the many decent and conscientious souls trying to do a good job amid the furore) and it would appear that the media have decided upon a role as self-appointed instruments of retribution, spurred on, in some cases, by a spurious conflation of police and government. Since the general public are often inclined to emote first and ask questions later (if at all), this strikes me as intentionally playing with fire.
It’s a known fact that hot summers produce civil unrest and we have a population smarting under the legacy of lockdown and the high cost of living and primed by constant provocation and grievance-mongering in the media - social and otherwise. Just at the point when we need to be able to call on a strong force to protect law and order (or life and property), there seems to be a concerted effort at work to undermine the last shreds of authority vested in the police - an effort on the part of the very (and possibly only) organisations with a great deal to gain in the event of mass disorder.