Why is Auntie anti-Liverpool? The case for renaming BBC Merseyside

Liverpool's Three Graces: the Royal Liver Building, Cunard Building and Port of Liverpool Building at the Pier Head. Image: Rept0n1x/Wikipedia.

On 7 January, Carrie Gracie resigned her post as the BBC’s China editor. In a letter to the licence fee payers, she set out her grievances with the BBC, and reminded us that the BBC belongs to us.

She also argued that there is a “bunker mentality” and “a crisis of trust” at the corporation. The event was a reminder of how deeply flawed that public sector has often been (the Savile scandal, for example). This event was immediately, and very loudly, broadcast across all types of media. 

A while ago I had to pay £147 to renew my TV licence, and it made me realise just how little I now use the BBC, mainly because of Freeview and the internet. There are, for example, some quite good channels on Youtube and free catch-up apps like ITV Hub, All 4, My5 and the like. 

Given all this choice, far more than I would ever want to watch, I have decided that I don’t really need or want paid access to the BBC. But there’s the rub: the state forces me, on threat of a large fine or even, ultimately, imprisonment, to fund the BBC – even if I only want to watch or record television programmes as they are being broadcast in real time on channels other than the BBC.

You see, the BBC doesn’t really offer me anything that I cannot get elsewhere for free. And the BBC North West regional output, transmitted from Greater Manchester, is of a relatively low standard and is often quite snidey about Liverpool City Region – something I find alienating to the point where I have had to stop watching it. We don’t even get a local scenic picture in the background, such as the one at the top of this page, when, for example, Daily Politics interviews someone remotely in the BBC studio in Liverpool. 

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for a public service broadcaster – just not such a gargantuan, dominant and arrogant one. A smaller, more tightly defined “very much public sector” BBC, to quote Jeremy Corbyn, free at the point of access, would be more appropriate in this day and age.

This set me thinking about what other benefits the BBC may bring, beyond just my own personal desires. So I decided to consider the benefits that the BBC could bring to the Liverpool City Region or, more relevantly, Greater Liverpool (as described in April 2017).

I decided to try to take an objective route by using Office of National Statistics. These numbers were sourced directly from the ONS, and show that there are about 1.2m households in Greater Liverpool. To make the sums easy, let’s assume that Greater Liverpool has about one million TV licence fee payers. That’s about £150m a year that the area contributes to the BBC coffers.

So, what does only Greater Liverpool get for our £150 million, that’s not available to everyone else in the country? Answer: the badly named BBC Radio Merseyside, a local radio station with a handful of staff – certainly not £150m.

It appears to me, therefore, that Greater Liverpool is subsidising BBC jobs in London and elsewhere rather than in Greater Liverpool. Surely there is something fundamentally wrong, when we are subsidising large numbers of expensive middle class jobs in booming London, in ludicrously expensive buildings? Surely, given that the BBC is the publicly funded State broadcaster and “very much public sector”, it should be the other way around? The corporation would also get much lower cost and better value premises to operate from in Greater Liverpool, for example.

So, last July, I decided to send an email to the BBC’s Managing Editor of BBC Radio Merseyside, Sue Owen, to see if I could get any additional local value out of them:

“Ms Owen,

“I am contacting you in your capacity as Managing Editor at BBC Radio Merseyside….  The BBC local radio stations listed here are all named after their host cities: BBC Radio Bristol; Nottingham; Leeds; Sheffield; Manchester; Newcastle; London; Derby; Leicester; Oxford; Stoke; York… 

“You should also understand that the word ‘Merseyside’ is now out of date due to the new official and formal administrative, political, economic and geographical entity of ‘Liverpool City Region’. It is also worth noting that some of the places within Radio Merseyside’s catchment area, such as North Wales, Chester and Ormskirk are not in Merseyside or even on or near the banks of the River Mersey. 

“It is therefore surely time to make a name change to BBC Radio Liverpool from BBC Radio Merseyside to reflect the existing reality, and for the BBC to be seen as keeping up with the current and future version of the world. (…) Liverpool is already well recognised internationally. The word ‘Merseyside’ is now out of date and is not recognised or understood internationally.

“If the BBC’s central principle is supposedly impartiality then all local BBC radio stations should be named based on the same guidelines. In recent times both of the local radio stations serving London and Greater Manchester have been re-branded [as BBC London and BBC Manchester respectively].

“John Ryan, the managing editor of BBC Radio Manchester, stated that the reason for the relaunch was that Manchester was the more recognised brand within that region. He also went on to say that the Manchester change was: “in keeping with most other BBC local radio stations”; that it: “didn’t alter the quality or reach of the service”; and that he: “simply wanted to serve the whole of the Manchester area better.”

“Why don’t you follow the lead of your equivalent, John Ryan, and do the same for Liverpool as he did for Manchester? A name change would reflect the existing reality better and help us to further develop a coherent identity for the wider metropolitan area.


“          Dave”

I sent four emails in total and received four replies, for which I am grateful.

But I was not satisfied that my questions had been properly answered: I was basically told that they like the name and are not going to change it. I therefore sent follow up emails, wherein I actually begged for my questions to be answered fully, to no avail, apart from the merest glimmer of hope – when Owen acknowledged that she has the power to change the name if she wants to and that she will consider it if she gets enough emails and letters requesting it. 

So, there you have it, if you want BBC Radio Merseyside to be renamed to the much better BBC Radio Liverpool, please them and request it. To quote Gracie: “enough is enough” and “the BBC must admit the problem”.

One last thing. The Esther McVey promotion to Cabinet Minister, on 8 January, was predicted in CityMetric immediately after the general election last June. I wonder what other predictions I’ve made that might yet come true.

Dave Mail is CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.