With the privatisation of Channel 4 and discussions around the BBC licence fee, plus the energy crisis and recovery from a particularly difficult period for the entertainment industry during the pandemic, it feels like a crucial time for the UK’s new culture secretary.
Michelle Donelan took up the role as Liz Truss formed her first cabinet as prime minister on Tuesday after the resignation of Nadine Dorries.
A member of parliament since 2015, she represents the Chippenham constituency in the South West.
Why has she been picked for the role of culture secretary?
Well, she has previous experience in the entertainment industry, having worked for the History Channel as well as for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) as an international marketing communications manager.
Ms Donelan also has experience in government, with her role as secretary of digital, culture, media and sport her second cabinet position after being made education secretary under Boris Johnson in July.
If you don’t remember this, it’s because the appointment actually led to her becoming the shortest-serving cabinet member in British history.
Ms Donelan replaced Nadhim Zahawi as education secretary as he was promoted to chancellor, but resigned less than 36 hours later as part of a spate of ministerial resignations – and eventually Mr Johnson’s – over the Chris Pincher scandal.
Before this, Ms Donelan served on the education select committee for three years before entering the government in the whips’ office in 2018.
She then spent three years in the Department of Education, first as children and families minister, then minister of state for universities.
A promotion to the role of higher and further education minister came in 2021 and she was sworn into the Privy Council.
It’s not who you know…
Of her work in politics, she says on her website: “People often say that getting into politics is about who you know, but I think my experience is proof that this is certainly not the case – I went to a state school and was the first in my family to attend university.
“Whilst my family were not especially political, what they did teach me was to work hard and make the most of every opportunity that came my way. It is something which I have carried with me at every stage of my career, and it is certainly something I have never taken for granted.”
Although her work means she does not have much spare time, she says, when she does get a break she enjoys walking her dog Bella in the Wiltshire countryside.
What will happen to Channel 4?
Ms Donelan’s appointment as culture secretary comes as the chief executive of trade body Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT), which represents the independent TV production sector, urged a reconsideration of the privatisation of Channel 4.
This decision was made this year by Ms Dorries, her predecessor, with the government at the time arguing that the broadcaster will struggle to survive in a media landscape increasingly dominated by big streaming giants such as Netflix.
John McVay, chief executive of PACT, said it would be a “nonsensical” decision to proceed with taking the broadcaster, which is entirely funded by advertising, out of public ownership.
Speaking during a media briefing, Mr McVay said Channel 4 is “a brilliant way of taking private money from advertisers and pouring it into the UK economy” and questioned whether changing this approach was a wise decision given the state of the economy.
“Is this really what you want to be doing when we’re about to go into the worst inflationary recession cycle we’ve seen since probably the 1970s?” he said.
Earlier in September, more than 750 independent production companies in the UK signed an open letter to the future prime minister calling for the privatisation of Channel 4 to be halted.
The BBC licence fee debate
Reviewing the BBC licence fee is also an issue that Ms Donelan will inherit.
Plans to replace the broadcaster’s funding model were previously described as a “massive red herring” to attack the BBC by Jon Thoday, joint founder and co-executive chairman of production company Avalon.
Ms Dorries announced in January that the licence fee would be frozen at £159 for the next two years until April 2024, and said she wanted to find a new funding model before the current deal expires in 2027 as it is “completely outdated”.
In response to the remarks made by Mr Thoday, a DCMS spokesperson said: “The BBC’s funding model needs to be made more sustainable for the future, as it already faces major challenges including radical changes in the way people consume media.
“We have committed to reviewing the licence fee funding model ahead of the next Charter period to explore the potential for alternative ways to fund the BBC.”
How to deal with the energy crisis?
The issue of spiralling energy costs and the impact on theatres has also been highlighted by leading representatives of the industry after Ms Donelan’s appointment.
Eleanor Lloyd, president of the Society of London Theatre, and joint UK Theatre presidents Stephanie Sirr and Jon Gilchrist, said: “The energy crisis is causing much concern for theatres across the UK.
“Theatres are doing everything they can to be as energy efficient as possible but like our colleagues across the cultural, creative and hospitality industries there are undoubtedly tough times ahead.
“Theatres are committed to a plethora of sustainability initiatives including cutting energy consumption but the reality is that for many, they will see their energy bills double and even triple which will have significant operational consequences.”
Music industry bosses have also echoed the calls for help.
Philippa Childs, head of creative industries union BECTU, said: “Creative workers are the lifeblood of the UK’s hugely successful cultural sector, yet they continue to suffer from unpredictable and insecure work following the perfect storm of Brexit restrictions, the COVID-19 pandemic and now an escalating cost of living crisis.
“Instead of undermining much-loved cultural institutions like the BBC and Channel 4, we will be looking to the new culture secretary to work with us to champion the self-employed and freelance workforce in government, through fighting for a better paid workforce and fairer working conditions.”