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From WWE Marketing Manager to U.K.s New Culture Secretary: 5 Things You Need to Know About Michelle Donelan

Late Tuesday evening local time, Michelle Donelan was appointed the U.K.’s latest secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) by incoming Prime Minister Liz Truss (herself only elected on Monday.)

As Donelan steps into her new role – becoming the tenth culture secretary in as many years – she’ll have to hit the ground running. The DCMS is a vast department that covers everything from the U.K.’s film and television industries to theater, music, tourism, internet safety and sports, including the oversight of major events as disparate as the Eurovision Song Contest, the soccer UEFA Champions League and the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

Despite her commitment to widening access to the arts, Donelan’s predecessor, Nadine Dorries, was widely disliked by much of the U.K. screen industry, largely due to her pledge to privatize public broadcaster Channel 4 and revoke the BBC’s license fee, the annual levy paid by anyone who watches live television in the U.K. on any network and via any device.

So how will Donelan fare? Here’s everything you need to know about Truss’s new culture secretary…

1. Political Allegiances

Donelan is a Conservative member of parliament (MP). She was elected as the MP for Chippenham, a region in the south of England, in 2015 at the age of 31.

She is one of the youngest members of Truss’s new cabinet (the name for the group of top politicians in the U.K. government) and was relatively unknown before her appointment. Rumors of her securing a plum role in the new administration started to emerge in recent weeks, as she campaigned hard for Truss in the party leadership elections.

Most of Donelan’s political experience lies in education. She was infamously the Secretary of State for education for a grand total of two days, resigning some 36 hours after she was appointed in protest at Boris Johnson. But it is her experience in higher education (HE) – she has held roles as both the minister for HE and the minister for universities – that is causing concern within the film and TV industries.

“She made her name as Universities Minister, not by looking at the quite considerable challenges in the HE sector […] she just picked a fight with them,” one former DCMS insider told Variety, speaking on condition of anonymity. “She was a culture warrior. […] She just went on and on and on at [the universities] about wokery and free speech. And the concern is that she is being sent to [the] Culture [department] to pick a fight.”

2. Media Experience

Prior to politics, Donelan had a brief career in marketing, according to her LinkedIn, working as a senior marketing executive for Sky for two years before moving to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), where she spent three years as a marketing manager. She also spent a year in Australia in her 20s working as a marketing assistant at Pacific Magazines, which publishes titles including Marie Claire.

“The creative sectors will be doing a concerted roll of the eyes at yet another new cabinet minister and it is fair to say she is relatively unknown in the creative world,” a creative industry leader with experience of DCMS told Variety, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “Though her background working for the WWE probably makes her one of the most experienced secretary of state we’ve had in terms of an actual track record of working in the sectors!”

3. Public Broadcasting

For those hoping Donelan might reverse course on Dorries’ battle against public broadcasters, the outlook doesn’t look good. Donelan campaigned against the BBC’s decision to scrap free TV licenses for the over-75s (a cost-cutting measure that saved the corporation £745 million per year), writing in an op-ed on the topic: “Personally I think the licence fee is an unfair tax and should be scrapped all together but that is a different debate.”

It’s unknown what Donelan’s thoughts on Channel 4 are but Truss has indicated she plans to continue with privatization plans. “Where possible, it’s best to have companies operating in the private sector rather than the public sector,” she told reporters last month according to Bloomberg U.K. “I will look in detail at the business case on Channel 4.”

However political opponent Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on DCMS, suggested there is no business case for the move. “There is no evidence that selling off Channel 4 will be financially beneficial to the U.K.,” he told Variety. “In fact, there is plenty of evidence that it would be severely damaging to our cultural economy by threatening jobs, livelihoods, and the creation of internationally renowned original British content. We will lose money from this foolish deal, money that, now more than ever, we cannot afford to lose.”

4. Pressing Issues

Where to start? As well as the futures of Channel 4 and the BBC, the most pressing issue set to affect almost every creative industry is the current energy crisis, which has seen the cost of gas spiralling out of control. Particularly for live-events sectors like theater and music, which have yet to recover from the two years of pandemic-induced lockdowns, soaring bills are potentially catastrophic. Meanwhile the Government’s film and TV production restart scheme – which helped productions get COVID-related insurance – is set to end in the coming months, potentially leaving many companies exposed.

There is also worry that Donelan will be more concerned about the next general election – set to take place in 2025 unless Truss decides to call a snap election earlier – than implementing stable policies and funding for the cultural industries. “The sectors must remember that almost everything that comes from government over the next two years will be done with the election in mind,” said the creative industry leader. “So I wouldn’t expect anything major though it will be interesting see if Nadine’s levelling up focus continues.”

5. Industry Reactions

The creative industries have reacted swiftly to the news of Donelan’s appointment. Philippa Childs, head of crew union Bectu, said she hoped the new culture secretary would “use her role to celebrate and enhance the contribution of our successful creative industries.”

“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,” Childs continued.

President of the Society of London Theatre Eleanor Lloyd and U.K. Theatre presidents Stephanie Sirr and Jon Gilchrist sent out a joint statement welcoming Donelan to the post and asking to ensure the recent higher rate of theater tax relief is maintained. They also urged the government to help with the energy crisis. “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. We look forward to working with the new Secretary of State on these issues,” they said.

Their comments were echoed by Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, chief executive of industry group U.K. Music, who also welcomed Donelan and asked for her help with spiralling energy costs. “Following the Prime Minister’s comments about how we need tax cuts to stimulate the economy, we will continue to press the case for fiscal incentives to increase investment, support for U.K. exports and a significant cut in VAT to help boost jobs and growth in our sector,” he said in a statement. “We also urgently need action from Government on the energy crisis, which is crippling businesses across our sector.”

Meanwhile, the DCMS insider pointed out that one of the most important things Donelan must try to offer is stability.“ [The department] has gone through a huge number of ministers since the Tories took over,” the indisder told Variety. “Industries everywhere, including the creative industries, need certainty, in policy and funding frameworks, and they absolutely have not had that in the last few years. So fingers crossed, but hopes not high, that Donelan can provide that.”

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