ITV is planning to call time on 40 years of flagship political coverage on Sundays in a move that brings to an end the era of forensic interview shows stretching from Brian Walden's Weekend World to the Jonathan Dimbleby programme.
Broadcasters and politicians last night criticised the channel for abandoning the tradition, which was widely seen in the industry as a " fig leaf" for a network relentlessly dumbing down. Mr Dimbleby, who fronted the slot for 12 years with a peak of several million viewers, said the move was "incomprehensible and deplorable" and called on ITV to think again.
Sources said the ITV director of television, Simon Shaps, has told senior staff that "politics is dead" on the channel, which relies increasingly on celebrity and "reality" programmes.
But insiders said the network planned not to make public the scrapping of the current incumbent, The Sunday Edition, until at least Christmas and there were no plans for a "farewell" on Sunday, which will in effect see the last episode of the LWT-Granada-produced show. One source said ITV was hoping SE, presented by Andrea Catherwood and Andrew Rawnsley, which pulls in 250,000 viewers, would simply "fizzle out quietly".
Mr Dimbleby, whose departure in 2006 is believed by many to have dealt a credibility blow to the channel, said: "If ITV really decides to kill off politics on Sunday it would, to me, be both incomprehensible and deplorable. ITV pioneered political television on Sundays. It introduced the forensic interview which allows for rigorous cross-examination of those who makes decisions on our behalf."
The exacting "LWT tradition" began when Walden demanded his team – which included a young Peter Mandelson and Trevor Phillips – prepare a tree-like "map", showing the different directions in which the interview might go, with various branches representing different potential answers.
Last night, ITV claimed "no decision" had been taken on the slot's future, but bosses were said to be investigating a leak. Mr Dimbleby said he feared the "no decision" line meant that "the writing's on the wall". He added: "It is incomprehensible to me that they should give up this strand."
John Whittingdale, the chairman of the Culture Select Committee, pointed out that ITV appeared to be abandoning its public service duty. "I am very concerned that ITV is moving away from politics," he said.
ITV's political coups
* 1980s: Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and John Birt are among those plotting interview strategy for Brian Walden
* 2002: Transport Secretary Stephen Byers forced to resign after misleading Jonathan Dimbleby over a departmental feud
* 2003: Dimbleby interviews Tariq Aziz on eve of Iraq invasion; other foreign guests include Condoleezza Rice and Kofi Annan
* 2004: Clare Short produces 'threatening' letter on air from Cabinet Secretary barring interviews