When Denis Healey was still a boisterous election campaigner in the 80s, I once heard him remark: “We’re the only people [politicians and travelling press] who don’t know what’s going on in this election because we aren’t watching it on TV.” How quaint that observation has come to sound. I think it was the same campaign in which I first saw a mobile phone – the size of a brick – being used to obtain a politician’s reaction to a speech not yet made. Wow! Fax machines, the internet and 24/7 news channels, pagers, mobiles, the hydra-headed communication revolution gained momentum. YouTube, Google, Twitter/X, Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok and now the Pandora’s Box of ChatGPT and its rivals opened in time for the global Election Olympic Games that will be 2024.

Have I forgotten anything? Probably. Though newspapers were first to see their business model shattered by information technology, most journalists and their companies struggle to keep up. Politicians too. Tony Blair left No 10 in 2007 being unable to send a text message. No WhatsApp groups for him or Gordon Brown to plot against each other.

Rishi Sunak is unique: as a data-happy tech bro, he actually understands this world as most of Whitehall, Westminster and Fleet Street don’t. But they usually know someone who does. Now most fastidious or Luddite MPs have abandoned resistance and embraced a few available means of spreading the message and recruiting activists, donations and votes. In 2024, many will also be doing their darnedest to use the same magic to do it for their friends – or maximum damage to the other side. Fleet Street has been on Defcom 3 election alert for a year, though Tory papers are not always certain where to aim first: at Starmer or the unloved Sunak.

Either way, it is widely agreed that Britain’s forthcoming election will be “the dirtiest ever”. It is a depressing prospect. Not least because we can be fairly sure that, of the 70 elections around the world this year, the nastiest and most expensive one will be in the US. Once the “shining city on the hill”, it is now at serious risk of political violence and disorder. The infectious nature of Anglo-Saxon culture – from which only Canada seems strangely immune – guarantees that the UK and US spread each other’s nastier habits, with Labour and Tories also importing vicious habits from the Australian political jungle.

It is tempting at this point for liberals to mutter “Murdoch” as the virus common to all three continents. Tempting, but wrong. For one thing, the trend towards authoritarian populism is in the bloodstream everywhere among voters in countries where no one reads The Sun or watches Fox “News”. In increasingly polarised societies, both Left and Right invoke “freedom” and “democracy” but often sound similarly intolerant. What drives it? Economic globalisation in which the benefits are general but the losses often specific – cheap e-cars from China, but car jobs lost in Europe or the US. Distress is exacerbated by growing evidence of inequality and by rapid social changes, tensions further provoked conflicting values and beliefs. The battles between liberal secular forces and the reactionary papacy in the new German Empire came to be known as the culture wars. The liberals overplayed their hand and crafty Bismarck took advantage for conservative electoral gain.

Sounds familiar? It should. US conservatives revived the concept of a kulturkampf in the pre-internet 80s and it has flourished. Race and identity, assorted “wokery”, sex and gender, economic populism vs balanced budgets, nationalism (Scots, Irish and English varieties), immigration and sovereignty (ie. Brexit), crime and civil liberties, there is no shortage of choices. Whatever happened to turn liberal pro-gay Stonewall into strident trans militancy? Brexit grievances were real, it was the remedies that have been exposed as hollow.

Some academic studies suggest that right-wing campaigners are better at devising effective campaign tropes than the left: “Get Brexit Done”, “Take Back Control”, “Labour Isn’t Working” or – long ago – “Safety First”. I’m not sure that’s true, though no leftie zinger comes to mind. What is true is that the Tory “Demon Eyes” attack failed against Blair in 1997 and “Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?” – an Australian bit of dog-whistle innuendo – bombed in 2005. But, certainly, right-wing print memes work better, partly simply by virtue of overwhelming numbers and also of sheer flair. The Daily Mirror has its moments, The Guardian and The Observer battle on, but none can match the brazen effrontery of The Sun, the Johnsonification of the once-staid Daily Telegraph or the Prussian brutality of the Daily Mail on a bad day. “Enemies of the People”, directed against the judges, was a headline that should have made Home Counties readers shudder. “At last a

REAL Tory Budget” should have sent them to move their savings into

dollars in case Truss crashed the markets. She did.

Another symptom of economic or cultural distress? Or the disorientation of social media in which we are all connected, yet strangely isolated: the modern family together in the sitting room, more likely in their bedrooms, each furiously scrolling down an AI-selected entertainment or TikTok political message targeted just for you. Unregulated, unverified, unsourced or funded. What could possibly go wrong?

A quick Pater Noster to soothe those frazzled nerves

All forms of media now compete in a Darwinian struggle for eyeballs, clicks and views to justify ad revenue – or subscription – in ever-shrinking attention spans. It generates a very negative feedback loop: shorter and shriller. BBC1 is still this country’s top source of news, ahead of Instagram, Twitter/X and TikTok. The BBC struggles on, burdened with governmentimposed budget cuts. Its audiences are debilitated by government-licensed rivals taking advantage of multi-channel digitalised new technology. They make possible high-minded podcast hits but also Ofcom-busting GB News. The last time I switched off Jacob Rees-Mogg, he was urging viewers to calm themselves by reciting the Lord’s Prayer – in Latin. Reality TV outsatirising Evelyn Waugh!

Cash-strapped newspapers cling like stranded polar bears to a melting market share, shadows of their glory days. Politically, they still matter, very much so online. Their tone helps set that for parasitic social media. Their coverage of real events permeates online platforms, adding to the confusion of fake news with paid spots placed by political campaigns. The millions once spent on print now go to FaceTime, Instagram, Twitter and on “influencers” – the virtual spin doctors of the post-analogue age, their services came by phone as once they came through your letterbox.

In the run-up to the 1997 election, Tony Blair’s courtship of the Tory tabs ensured that The Sun (Rupert loves a winner) swung his way. At the Daily Mail, David English called off the attack dogs until 1998. Paul Dacre would not repeat such tenderness. The Daily Telegraph has long since succumbed to Faragiste entryism. Murdoch will probably hedge his bet as usual: Sunday Times pro-Tory, The Times being Tory but relatively fair – as slightly Top

People still expect. Readers’ below-the-line critical comments must keep Tony Gallagher’s Dacre-trained instincts in check. The FT might edge towards Starmer, as it did towards Labour in 1992.

Sunak in 2024 is as unpopular a Tory PM as John Major was by 1997, editors still hankering for fallen heroes – Maggie and Boris. But Starmer isn’t Blair, overwhelmingly the public’s choice. The best you can say is that Sir Keir is dull and decent, perhaps with more radicalism and ruthlessness hidden away until after polling day: the Attlee model. Not TikTok material. But Starmer intends to do what he must to win.

All things being equal, that might be enough to spike Fleet Street’s noisiest guns. Barring court convictions for rape, tax and election fraud, Starmer is set to be PM in 2024. But things are not equal. Not content with the usual attacks (weak, indecisive, hypocrite, posh, etc), Fleet Street carries a personal grudge from his career as DPP. No, not as “the man who failed to nail Savile, child abusers, etc” or – in his youth – saved Jamaican murderers from the rope. No, DPP Starmer is the man who prosecuted News of the World reporters and their paid sources in the hacking affair. NotW folk got acquitted but their sources were jailed. Actually, they’d all been dobbed in by Murdoch execs to save the company from US prosecutors. The misplaced sense of outrage against Starmer is real and personal.

Team Starmer is reportedly ready for this. It has been through the boss’s legal career, ready to defend it. It has also test-marketed its own nasty memes to signal Labour has stockpiled its own drones to counter attacks with fire. The party is rejecting Michelle Obama’s wholesome to go high whenever the other side goes low. This strikes me as understandable but unhealthy. Isn’t Sunak basically dull but decent too? Wasn’t Sir Ed Davey’s failure to sort out the sub-postmasters no worse than other ministers’, and many others’, failure? But Sunak’s handlers know they must dent the Lib Dems just as they must Starmer (didn’t he prosecute a few sub-postmasters?) in the red walls. They seek to delegitimise their right to rule, a very dangerous trend, as Trump’s “stolen election” showed.

Does it mean that anything goes? We will find out. Election and Ofcom rules are underfunded and undermined. So are the rules governing spending limits (dark money, foreign or oligarch money, Russian bot factories there to spread confusion?) before the official declared pre-election period. They have been weakened since 2010. As for managing the genie of AI, let alone the rules limiting its appropriate use in elections, no international agreement has yet gone beyond polite discussion. In many of the electing states in 2024, there is little or no regulation of tools provided by the tech giants. Argentina’s maverick populist Javier Milei, the one whose monetary policy is to blow up the central bank, is now president. Another scapegoater, Narendra Modi, is edging towards an authoritarian model of Hindu nationalism for secular India. In Mexico, the threat comes from the populist left. In contrast to the upbeat 1990s, the world is now in democratic deficit. We must not think Britain is immune from the danger just because we were born here.

And yet and yet. Our secular saint, Sir David Attenborough, has a happy note of ending his vivid accounts of destruction of the natural world with a spot of sunlight on a still pristine valley. So it is worth reminding us that in 2023 Poland did reject the hardline Law and Justice Party. Gallant Zelensky still fights on in Ukraine and Taiwan’s voters have rebuffed Beijing’s menace. ITV’s Mr Bates vs the Post Office overturned a grotesque misjustice – how that would have delighted Denis Healey! And it is exactly 100 years since the Mail’s most notorious election stunt, the MI6 forged Zinoviev Letter. It finished off Ramsay MacDonald’s fledgling government. But we survived that scandal and many similar since. Compromise and mutual respect, accountability and the rule of law are key. And Brexit grievances deserve respect, though not quack remedies. Yes. I mean you, Suella.