“The look of a video that a backpacker might send home to his family to update them on his long recovery from malaria.” Image: Substack

Cummings shots

Can Dominic Cummings, video star, manage to capture people’s hearts and minds?
May 28, 2024

We’ve seen a lot less of Dominic Cummings since that infamous 2020 press conference from the rose garden of Number 10, where he attempted to justify breaking quarantine rules and visiting Barnard Castle. But he hasn’t disappeared. He moved to Substack, the newsletter-cum-blogging platform that’s popular with journalists who want a more direct line to their readers—and to earn subscription fees from that relationship. Cummings started his Substack in June 2021, charging £10 a month to his subscribers, who apparently number in the tens of thousands. Before this, he blogged on his personal website, clocking up more than a million words railing against Boris Johnson and more or less every other member of the Tory party; detailing his experiences giving evidence at the Covid Inquiry; as well as delivering his various thoughts on AI, democracy, education, the evils of social science and whatever else caught his eye. 

At the end of April, Cummings announced a new venture on his Substack, called “Breaking Kayfabe”. Kayfabe, for those uninitiated in WWE, is the wrestling world’s convention of maintaining the illusion that the sport is not staged. The conceit with Breaking Kayfabe, then, is that Cummings is going to cut through and reveal the fakery he sees in the mainstream news media and in government communications to the public. The odd thing about Breaking Kayfabe is that, for the first time, Cummings is making a foray into video, rather than written, content. The videos will be short, around 60 seconds in length, and offer nuggets of Cummings’s personal brand of no-bullshit, anti-establishment opinion to the world.

Why? Cummings doesn’t leave it to us to guess: “SEND THIS VIDEO TO YOUR FRIENDS ON WHATSAPP ETC!” it says in slightly threatening capitals directly beneath the video. In an accompanying blog post, Cummings laments that “it’s impossible to live a normal life and spend hours combing the internet to figure out which randoms are actually accurate” on current affairs. So, he writes, “I’m going to experiment with super short and simple video that focuses on what’s important. I’m also interested to see how people share these, given short videos are taking over from text.”

This is a way for Cummings to experiment with other methods for breaking into a position of greater influence

Indeed they are. It remains unimaginable, however, that Cummings would do anything so gauche as launching a TikTok account. So this is a way for him to experiment with other methods for breaking out of Substack and into a position of greater influence. He wants to be in your family group chat, shareable, digestible. He says fewer than 200 words. This is not the Cummings who routinely writes rambling screeds on Tolstoy, Bismarck and the sorry state of the contemporary Tory party.

So what have we got with this first instalment of Breaking Kayfabe? It is titled, “How to summarise as much as possible about how politics really works in 60 seconds?” In it, Cummings delineates what he calls his “five Golden Rules” for understanding politics and government. These include: how we must remember that there are virtually no people in the civil service with a talent for “building things”, and that MPs are mostly seeking promotion, rather than working to win elections or do a good job for their constituents. So far, so Cummings.

But it’s the content of the episode, besides the words themselves, that interests me. Breaking Kayfabe has the look of a video that a backpacker might send home to his family to update them on his long recovery from malaria. Cummings, wan and flatly lit, sits artlessly framed by an anonymous wooden doorway on one side and a light switch on the other, wearing a cap and with his polo shirt collar folded up on itself. He’s shot himself from below and at a slight angle, as though recording ad hoc on a laptop. It is no doubt a laptop, because you can see his eyes flitting back and forth to a point just below the camera, where his notes are presumably written. He speaks in a characterless drone as he reels off his rules. He does blink, but I had to rewatch it to be sure. 

It is some of the most uncharismatic footage I have ever seen. It is anti-aesthetic, low-rent, no set dressing and, of course, very short. And this is surely intentional: Cummings wants viewers to see him as real, where other news sources and pundits are not. 

It may prove to be a smart move. As Cummings himself notes, this is the way people consume their news more and more: via a talking-head video on their phone, not by reading, well, anything. But if he’s going to be filming them like this, with all the charm and mise en scène of car park CCTV footage, I’m not sure he’s going to be able to get enough attention. It’s a world where people watch a lot of videos, yes, but they are accustomed to watching videos that look a lot better than this.