Blair protests at plan to axe News at Ten

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR declared his strong opposition yesterday to ITV's plans to abolish its flagship News at Ten programme.

Although the Prime Minister will not intervene directly in the decision on the bulletin's future, which is a matter for the Independent Television Commission (ITC), he hopes that by signalling his views he will persuade ITV to think again.

ITV confirmed its intention to replace News at Ten and the 5.40pm news with one 6.30pm programme anchored by Trevor McDonald. ITN, which makes the news for ITV said it has signed a new long-term contract with Mr McDonald.

In an attempt to persuade the ITC it has not abandoned its commitment to news, the network announced a further half-hour of late news at 11pm. ITN will also provide a 10pm bulletin for ITV's new digital television channel ITV2.

ITN's chief executive, Stewart Purvis, said the news organisation was "excited by the challenge" of the early-evening news programme, but journalists at ITN mostly condemned the ITV announcement.

Mr Blair's official spokes- man said that the Prime Minister wanted News at Ten to remain in its slot "because of its deserved reputation for reporting often complex political issues in a very digestible and even-handed way".

The spokesman added that Mr Blair believed it would be regrettable if the proposed changes "led to any marginalisation of TV news or any further move down-market in the media generally".

Mr Blair's intervention echoes a successful move by John Major to block an ITV plan to abolish News at Ten in 1993 while he was Prime Minister.

Aides say Mr Blair watches the bulletin "reasonably often", although he sometimes "switches off" from politics by turning off the TV when the news starts.

ITN journalists have deep misgivings about losing News at Ten, arguing that its timing enables ITV to cover events such as Commons votes that happen after the BBC's main 9pm bulletin. Michael Brunson, its long-serving political editor, said: "My view is that, given the way public life works in this country, News at Ten has a tremendous advantage and has given us the edge over the BBC over the years. But we will accept whatever decision is made by ITV and the ITC."

Michael Jackson, chief executive of Channel 4, hinted strongly that ITV's plan is ill-conceived. "Here's a programme that is right at the heart of the schedule. It's live. They have an icon in Trevor McDonald and it connects with the audience on a daily basis. It will be a challenge to replace it."