Last autumn it was ‘100 per cent not true’. This spring it was ‘absolute nonsense’. On Tuesday the BBC announced that Chris Evans had signed up for a three-year stint as Top Gear presenter. Like conkers and daffodils in summertime, the veracity of past statements becomes irrelevant in the time-space continuum of our mediascape.
Evans, the Beeb’s resident man for all seasons, has always been the obvious choice to replace Clarkson. 3.7 million watched his one-off TFI Friday special – a reboot that in retrospect was a test drive for Top Gear. But surely he did himself no favours by not mincing his denials in the previous months?
His first acknowledgment of his new gig conspicuously avoided any reference to past protestations and, in light of the u-turn, his pledge that ‘NO I’m not leaving Radio 2’ must be of little comfort to the successful breakfast show’s producers.
We now know that when, post-‘fracasgate’, Evans was ‘rubbishing’ the Top Gear gossip he was also in talks with the BBC. Does it matter that, to take a leaf out of the book of (Don)King, yesterday he was lying and today he is telling the truth? As Geoff Baker, Paul McCartney’s PR and the Daily Star’s former mercenary of truth, once remarked: what matters is that it was true at the time.
What Fleet Street hacks have in common with continental phenomenologists is an understanding that truth is a relative notion – people are intuitive rather than reflective and believe what feels right. Baker famously revealed that Princess Margaret was to make a guest appearance on the Midlands-set soaptrash Crossroads, an inspired piece of royal bluff calling that was subsequently commemorated by the Princess Margaret awards for “news” spun to the point of hadron collision.
The likes of Beckham Island (the celeb couple’s idyllic £6m paradise off the Essex coast) and an orgy breaking out in the West End premier of ‘97s Under the Skin hail from the heady days of light touch press regulation and when phone hacking was one of those things. Much has changed.
For one, as Chris Evans will tell you (after repeated denials), the digitalisation of news ensures that anything we say can be easily traced and will come back to bite. More than ever before we are forced to take account of what we make public. This has taken a particular toll on our politics. Contrary to the Saatchi spin, Thatcher was often for turning (climate change, Europe, grammar schools); yet now changing one’s mind is the pinnacle of weakness and our policymakers are straitjacketed into their instantly retrievable records.
Our digital footprints are matched by the stomp of Twitter and other privacy hollowing ‘social’ platforms for instantaneous response. In the pressure for live comment silence can be the most damaging response because it opens a gap for others to fill. The worrying outcome is that proper consideration is denied.
When Chris Evans gave his word that he wasn’t going to Top Gear it was indeed true at the time – the time being the twenty-four minute memes cycle into which our media is hooked. His first No came shortly after Clarkson’s ‘final warning’ over the ‘not-really racism’ in Burma and – not considering whether someday he might be offered the gig – he opted to avoid being used as a pawn to pressure Clarkson into good behaviour. Then came the cold dinner punch-up and Clarkson’s swift dismissal. New times, new truth.