Why Substack is an ideal home for Dominic Cummings

A paid-for newsletter where he can write 6,000-word rants while ignoring the requests of MPs suits Cummings down to the ground.

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Dominic Cummings has never been overly fond of the mainstream media. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the first outlet the former No 10 chief adviser has found for his post-politics work is a paid-for newsletter on the digital media start-up Substack.

Substack initially marketed itself as a service to independent creators, an alternative to traditional media and a way for people to escape the sound and fury of social media and instead build real communities, via email newsletters.

The reality has worked out somewhat differently: while the most successful newsletters are raking in tens of thousands of dollars a month – perhaps more – for their creators, they are hardly proving an antidote to the endless culture wars of social media.

Among the high earners on the site are Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer-turned-journalist, who spends most of his waking hours engaging in running battles with his former colleagues, journalists, Democrats, and really anyone who crosses his path.

Others use Substack to engage in the trans debate, including Father Ted and The IT Crowd writer Graham Linehan, following his ban from Twitter for violation of its policies on hateful conduct.

Rather than cool the discourse, Substack has become a medium that rewards its loudest voices. Being strident and picking fights wins new subscribers; emollience does not.

Given his pugnacious nature, Cummings seems a good fit for his new home, where Boris Johnson’s former top aide has generously promised that “a lot of stuff on Covid” will be available for free.

Other content, though, will come at a price. Those wanting to access all of Cummings’s thoughts on his time at No 10, the 2019 election, how Brexit got done or more will have to pay up, either £10 a month or £100 a year. Those willing to hand over £200 a year under a founding member subscription plan will get, the price plan promises, at least one thing extra: “gratitude”.

The members of parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee might be hoping that they can get a subscription on expenses – in the, possibly vain, hope that the Prime Minister’s former top adviser will use the newsletter to back up the explosive claims he made during their recent hearing.

[see also: Dominic Cummings is asking the wrong question about the UK’s pandemic response]

That’s because, while he has apparently had time to launch a new venture, Cummings has not yet got round to supplying MPs with any of the promised evidence to support said claims, despite repeatedly promising to do so.

Veterans of previous committees – which had tried and failed to summon Cummings to appear before them – might similarly hope to find on Substack some of the Brexit-related answers they wanted. Cummings could receive a decent revenue stream from legislators alone.

Cummings has little time for the niceties of politics-as-usual or media-as-usual: appearing in front of committees or not as suits his whims, supplying information to or decrying the mainstream media as he sees fit, and generally following no rulebook but his own.

Substack will, then, suit Cummings far more than a traditional paid newspaper column might – he can be his own editor, publish whatever he likes confined only by UK defamation law, and write as lengthily as he so chooses.

What’s more, he can set himself up in opposition to boring old traditional media, framing himself as part of the next wave. Cummings might find that a future on Substack serves him quite well, both as a calling card for other work and as an outlet in itself.

Substack might not be so thrilled, though. The site is keen to present itself as an impartial platform, a brand independent from its most prominent users, and a service that puts no editorial controls or restrictions on the people it hosts.

The fact its best-known voices Stateside have been so aggressively anti-mainstream has tarnished that image there. As Substack looks to grow more internationally – including in the UK – Cummings becoming one of its most visible early members risks helping the same happen here.

Are 6,000-word email rants the future of news? Let’s find out.

[see also: Dominic Cummings has ignited a new debate over the next Tory leader]

James Ball is the Global Editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He tweets @jamesrbuk.

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