PinkNews CEO admonishes anti-LGBTQ+ media rhetoric

PinkNews CEO admonishes anti-LGBTQ+ media rhetoric
Labour Party Deputy Leader Angela Rayner with PinkNews CEO Benjamin Cohen at the PinkNews awards in London on Wednesday. (Credit: PinkNews Awards 2023)

“The tone of the debate has soured.”

PinkNews CEO Benjamin Cohen did not hold back in what was an overtly political opening speech for a media owner’s awards.

But PinkNews has dared to defy convention since its inception in 2005. At the PinkNews Awards in London last night, Cohen warned of rising anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and hate speech in the media and politics, and praised his publication’s role in having been an agent of change in promoting a media narrative that is more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community.

Perhaps it was the advent of a key milestone that prompted Cohen to deliver such a biting reflection.

‘Rights that were promised were never advanced’

It was the 10th anniversary of the ceremony. It also aligned with the 20th anniversary of the repeal of Section 28, which had prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” in England and Wales, as well as the 10th anniversary of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act which legalised same-sex marriage in England and Wales.

Among the 15 award winners of the night included Channel 4’s George Michael: Outed for the Groundbreaking Broadcast Award, TRUK United FC for the Good News Award, and Durex for Brand Ally of the Year.

Cohen celebrated the progress that has been made on support for the LGBTQ+ community in the intervening years since PinkNews’s founding, but also criticised the current Conservative government for stalling on their promises to the queer community since 2017. He warned that renewed attacks this year on the trans and non-binary communities “risks a new version of Section 28 being rolled out.”

“We all need to be aware of this and trying to prevent it,” he implored.

Cohen called the contemporary political moment “a world away” from when PinkNews hosted Conservative MP and then-Minister for Women and Equalities Justine Greening at the 2016 PinkNews awards, where she highlighted the needs of trans young people and their families. “Can you imagine the Conservative Minister for Equalities Cabinet Minister saying that today?” Cohen asked the crowd rhetorically. Members of the audiences shouted “No,” and “Shame,” in response.

“Sadly those rights that were promised were never advanced, and the tone of the debate has soured over the years that followed,” Cohen continued. “Because today we see a fractured pictured here in the UK. We see culture wars raging. But we also see the value of strong, independent media to ask difficult questions.”

Rayner pledges pro-LGBTQ+ policies

Cohen then moved to introduce the keynote speaker of the event, Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner, who gave a rousing speech in which she promised a number of specific policy changes Labour will make to support the queer community if it wins next year’s general election.

These include legislating to ban all forms of conversion therapy, and making all categories of hate crimes, including LGBTQ+ hate crimes, equal, aggravated offenses to “[ensure] those that carry out anti-LGBTQ+ hate don’t dodge longer sentences.”

Overnight, reports emerged that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is also now reportedly moving to ban trans conversion therapy amid concerns Conservatives are shedding support from LGBTQ+ citizens.

That didn’t stop Rayner from turning the award show into something of a political rally. She condemned “in the strongest sense” the “dangerous rhetoric” being used by members of the Government about LGBTQ+ individuals and asylum seekers. “Such disturbing comments are reckless,” she said to applause.

Angela Rayner was the keynote speaker at the PinkNews Awards. (Credit: PinkNews Awards 2023)

“We are the party of equality,” she added. “We will protect the T in LGBT rights.”

Right to protest

Outside the awards venue, a small protest gathered, organised by Fossil Free Pride, a pro-LGBTQ+ and sustainability rights advocacy group. The group, standing in the rain, was there to express displeasure at PinkNews’s headline sponsor Lloyds Bank, which as a bank, has ties to supporting the fossil fuel industry.

One ceremony attendee was overheard as saying the protest was conducted respectfully and “all in good fun,” while Cohen himself joked that it was a “break from the routine” given the company is typically used to seeing anti-LGBTQ+ protestors at their events, rather than the queer-led Fossil Free Pride.

A modest group of protestors from Fossil Free Pride outside the PinkNews Awards

In a statement published on LinkedIn, queer advertising and marketing advocacy group Outvertising said it had “encouraged dialogue” between PinkNews and Fossil Fuel Pride and that it hoped PinkNews “will be listening to Fossil Free Pride’s message and work hard to do what is right and important.” It acknowledged, however, how this year has been particularly difficult for developing sponsorships at LGBTQ+ events. “There is a nervousness from organisations to align publicly with and advocate for our community due to the rise in anti-trans sentiment in particular,” the statement reads.

For his part, Cohen said PinkNews “supports the right to protest” and affirmed PinkNews’ commitment to championing reporting on the climate crisis. He further acknowledged that his company “carefully considered” the sponsors for this year’s awards, and said that going forward the company would further look to integrate climate concerns into the conversation around its decision-making around partnerships. However, he said that “banks are an essential service that all of us use, and we hope to bring our influence as the world’s largest LGBTQ+ publisher to bear when we work with financial institutions in the future.”

Prior to the event, Fossil Free Pride also took to social media to post a number of negative quotes by former employees, pulled from Glassdoor reviews of PinkNews, that expressed displeasure over the work environment at the publisher.

While not directly addressing such comments, Cohen took time to thank his staff in his speech, telling the audience, “From our events team to our content team, this evening, alongside our incredible winners, is also about celebrating the PinkNews team.”

Cohen also briefly addressed the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Cohen, who is Jewish and has close connections on both sides of the conflict, said his thoughts “are with all of those who are directly affected by these horrific events.”

“We grieve for the lives lost, the families who are devastated, and the fear and uncertainty that millions are facing for their futures,” he continued. “For those of us who are outsiders to the conflict, not immersed in the daily pain of war, it is our responsibility to make an effort to empathise with all suffering humans, rather than seeing only part of the terrible reality.

“It’s also our responsibility to try and prevent the spill over of hostilities into the UK. In the last two weeks we’ve seen a huge increase in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents, and as we celebrate hope and pray for us tonight, that applies beyond just the LGBTQ+ community, but to everyone who ever has to live in fear simply for being who they are.”

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