ITV breached rules over move of `News At Ten' closure broke law

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GERALD KAUFMAN, chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, warned ITV yesterday that politicians will have a say in determining whether the network should bring back News At Ten.

"Parliament does have power over ITV," he said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Mr Kaufman was defending the decision of Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to write to the Independent Television Commission expressing concern about ITV's rescheduled news bulletins at 6.30pm and 11pm.

He said the ITC had broken its own rules on how ITV should deliver news. "They laid down that there should be news at teatime, as well as a peak- hour bulletin. Now there is only news at teatime, and no other peak-hour bulletin." He also reminded ITV that the 1996 Broadcasting Act laid down how news should be dealt with. The Act commits the network "to broadcast ... news programmes of high quality dealing with national and international matters ... at intervals ... and in particular at peak viewing times".

Mr Kaufman's comments come as he prepares to chair a review of how the rescheduling of News At Ten is working in practice. Next March, the ITC will also conduct a review into the state of news on ITV - and is empowered to demand the reinstatement of News At Ten. Sir Robin Biggam, the ITC chairman, has already expressed concern that regional news programmes have lost millions of viewers since schedule change.

In The Independent today Mr Kaufman accuses the ITV companies of continually trying to deliver less mainstream news so that they can make more money. He says the ITC has given the ITV companies "a chance" to deliver a different schedule. "Let us be clear that it was no more than a chance. The ITC statement a year ago gave what its news release called `qualified approval' for the removal of News At Ten."

He says ITV's record, six months into the new schedule, is poor. "The latest figures for ITV evening news show that, while the audience for teatime news has risen by 1.4 million, the audience for late-evening news has fallen by 2.1 million. You don't have to be very good at arithmetic to work out that this is a net loss of 700,000."

ITV has also come under criticism for the programmes it is putting in the 10pm slot that used to be occupied by the news. In particular, the Campaign for Quality Television attacked "dumbing down" on ITV's new flagship current affairs programme Tonight with Trevor McDonald.

t Mr Kaufman is to chair a select committee inquiry, starting next week, into future funding of the BBC. It follows on from a report by the economist Gavyn Davies, which recommended raising the licence fee to pay for the expansion of digital services. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is due to make a decision early next year.

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