Culture secretary

The new culture secretary is not afraid to take on the culture wars and the BBC

Michelle Donelan will be responsible for broadcasting, arts, online politics and sports

Britain’s new Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan has an eye-catching background in media, sport and entertainment, having previously worked with US wrestling franchise WWE. Now she is preparing for a political fight over issues ranging from online regulation to the future of Channel 4 and the BBC.

After going to public school in Cheshire and becoming the first in her family to go to university – studying history and politics at York – Ms Donelan began a media career as a marketing assistant for Marie Claire and That’s Life magazines.

This was followed by marketing executive jobs at History Channel and World Wrestling Entertainment, and a stint as a marketing freelancer.

She entered politics in 2015, becoming MP for Chippenham, Wiltshire, before being appointed Government Whip and Minister in the Department for Education.

Frank views

While there, she was known to speak her mind. As university minister, she spoke of students being “cheated” into debt by getting degrees that might not be worth it. And she often picked up the vice-chancellors’ phone to express her candid opinions.

Michelle Donelan, future Conservative MP for Chippenham, smiles during a campaign rally at Corsham School in Chippenham, south west England, in March 2015

Michelle Donelan has been the Conservative MP for Chippenham since 2015

As Minister for Higher and Further Education, Ms Donelan led the Higher Education Free Speech Bill, which will require universities and student unions to protect free speech.

Bill would stop ‘intolerant woke bullies’ on campuses, she saysmaking speakers without a platform more difficult or weeding out academics who present controversial or unpopular viewpoints. Evan Davis of BBC Radio 4 pointed out it would also allow Holocaust deniers to speak.

Ms Donelan was promoted to education secretary in July but resigned after just two days as part of the massive ministerial walkout that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“Cultural vandalism”

In his new term, as the 11th culture secretary in 10 years, the culture wars are also raging, over what is acceptable to say or broadcast. Ms Donelan is unlikely to hesitate to speak out against those she says want to ‘silence their opponents’ and force others to conform to ‘an increasingly narrow ideology’.

In April, the 38-year-old wrote despairingly: “We are now seeing trigger warnings slapped on Harry Potter. We are seeing George Orwell’s 1984 book marked ‘offensive and upsetting’ for students to read.”

She also posted on the “cultural vandalism” of award-winning books “silently erased” from academic reading lists because of their difficult content, and opposed to removal of poets Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen from a GCSE curriculum in a bid to make it more diverse.

Sale of Channel 4?

Elsewhere, the future of Channel 4 and the BBC will be near the top of its entry tray.

Ms Donelan’s predecessor, Nadine Dorries, planned to privatize Channel 4, facing opposition from the broadcaster itself and much of the media industry.

John McVay, chief executive of Pact, a trade body representing independent television production companies, has asked the new culture secretary to reconsider. “It was pretty absurd 18 months ago, now it seems even more absurd,” he said, referring to an expected economic downturn.

License fees “an unfair tax”

The government is also carrying out a mid-term review of the BBC’s Royal Charter, which sets the framework for the company’s existence, amid a debate over the future of the license fee and what could replace it .

Nadine Dorries at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester

Nadine Dorries served as Culture Secretary for just over a year

Ms Dorries said the charges would not continue when the BBC’s current charter expires at the end of 2027.

In 2019 Ms Donelan said ‘the unjust tax…should be removed completely’.

She started a petition on her website, opposing the end of free TV licenses for most over-75s, and wrote to then chief executive Lord Hall, stressing:

  • ‘staggering’ number of BBC managers paid over £100,000

  • an annual payment of £1.7m for ‘a top presenter’ making ‘a single appearance a week’ – Gary Lineker, who has since taken a pay cut – could pay 11,000 people over the age of 75

Digital and sports

Then there’s the “digital” part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) brief. Ms Dorries was passionate about the Online Safety Bill, a bill to set rules for how internet providers crack down on harmful content on their sites.

In her resignation letter, the outgoing culture secretary wrote that she was proud that the bill would “hold tech giants accountable and protect the lives of millions of children and young people”.

But he’s on hiatus, and Gov. Liz Truss must decide whether to get him back on track. Some critics say this will lead to backdoor censorship, as these tech giants will have too much power to control content, and they might be especially careful to do so if heavy fines or jail time are the possible penalties. .

Sport is also a big part of the job, with ongoing questions about football and rugby club ownership and rescuing those in trouble. Ms Dorries announced plans for an independent football regulator to ensure “more Macclesfields, more Derbys, more Chelseas”, referring to clubs’ financial problems.

Cultural places feel the heat (or not)

On the culture side, museums, theaters and other institutions across the country are struggling. Visitor numbers have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, soaring energy bills and inflation, coupled with the tightening of the viewership purse, are tipping many people into financial hardship.

Museums and libraries are being touted as possible “warm shores” to serve as shelters for people this winter. Some say they might have trouble keeping the heat on themselves.

But will the new culture secretary and government have the appetite or the spare funds for the sector’s new bailout, after vital bailouts during Covid?

Beyond politics, what do we know of Ms. Donelan’s own cultural interests?

Not many, yet. However, she posted, in June, that she was a fan of soap opera Neighbors – sadly she was not in her new role in time to persuade Channel 5 to save it.