News At Ten? Forget it, says ITN chief (and don't believe gossip that Sir Trevor's defecting)

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The Independent Online

ITN will not be joining any campaign to bring back its flagship programme News At Ten. In a remarkably bullish interview with The Independent, ITN editor-in-chief Richard Tait dismissed criticism of its new news programmes as "a diversionary tactic" by the BBC to deflect attention from the corporation's internal problems.

ITN will not be joining any campaign to bring back its flagship programme News At Ten. In a remarkably bullish interview with The Independent, ITN editor-in-chief Richard Tait dismissed criticism of its new news programmes as "a diversionary tactic" by the BBC to deflect attention from the corporation's internal problems.

Looking from his office to the glass-fronted open-plan ITN newsroom below, Mr Tait was unmoved by reports of low morale among ITN staff. All that counted, he said, was what appeared on screen; and that remained "of the highest quality."

Mr Tait also dismissed as "nonsense" criticisms of his news operation by the former ITN star and current BBC anchor man Peter Sissons. He was equally dismissive of stories that Sir Trevor McDonald might defect to the BBC. "Trevor is definitely staying," he said. "He embodies ITN."

Inside the ITN headquarters, the building once occupied by The Sunday Times in Grays Inn Road, central London, staff who produce bulletins for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are undoubtedly depressed, not just by the removal of News At Ten by ITV, but by varying ratings for the replacement 11 0'Clock News, and proposed changes to working practices likely to accompany a planned ITN 24-hour news channel. Staff would have to work longer hours and more flexible rotas. No staff were prepared to go on the record; but several spoke privately of how these plans were worsening morale, low already because of the demise of News At Ten.

They will not find a champion for News At Ten in their editor-in-chief. Mr Tait said: "There are certainly people here who regret the passing of News At Ten and are sad it has gone. But there are also a lot of people in the newsroom who realise things change and are looking forward in a world where TV is changing very quickly.

"I'm quite an old-fashioned television news editor. I judge companies by what I see on screen, and what I see is absolutely the highest-quality journalism in ITN's history.

"I know it's not comfortable for people who work in the news to be in the news, and I'm very sensitive to the additional pressure it puts on people at ITN to come in every morning and have to wade through a lot of press coverage about themselves and their colleagues and friends. But look at the programmes. There's no sign of that discomfort."

Peter Sissons claims ITN has far fewer "top gun, front-line reporters" in its foreign coverage. "It's nonsense," says Mr Tait. "Quite simply, I wouldn't swap our top reporters for their BBC counterparts. On the night we got into Pristina we had four reporters there. It would be unfair to remind the BBC that because of logistical problems Kate Adie didn't get in at all.

"Peter left ITN a fair while ago. Since he's left, we have expanded our international bureaux. We have more cameras around the world and in the UK than at any time in ITN's history, and we've invested very heavily in mobile satellite technology. I get irritated at the arrogance the BBC has in thinking they are better than us. Viewers either find the services interchangeable or prefer us to them.

"If I were a cynic I would say they might not welcome an ITN round-the-clock channel, with Internet and mobile phone news services. And much of this is a diversionary tactic because they have their own problems. We have a quarter of their news-gathering budgets and a third of their staff, and we frequently beat them.

"The quality of our coverage from Kosovo and East Timor has been fantastic. We have probably had more international coverage than domestic coverage in the last few months. The BBC tends to hold some international coverage out of its 6pm bulletin and leave it till nine o clock. "

Mr Tait is a former BBC man and edited Newsnight. He adds: "Our 11pm news on Wednesday was watched by 5.3 million. The BBC would do cartwheels if they got one million watching Newsnight."

The 6.30pm news on Wednesday was watched by 6.6 million people, compared with the seven million who saw the BBC's Six O'Clock News. And Mr Tait is adamant his early evening bulletin "can become and will become the biggest news programme in Britain". But ITN is still around 700,000 viewers down because of the loss of News At Ten. Why will Mr Tait not champion its return? Is it the significant financial shareholding ITV companies have in ITN?

It appears not. He goes out of his way to say ITN should just be seen as the provider of news programmes and not involved in scheduling, but he clearly does not lament the changes it caused. "My overall view is that news should be on at a time when it can make a contribution to public life and our 6.30 news is a perfect time. The new schedules have given us the chance to do things in a fresher way. Some of our video effects and virtual reality graphics have made our competitors sit up and take notice. The debate on News At Ten has started too early for any sensible conclusions to be drawn.

"Former distinguished editors of ITN have been quoted in the press calling for the return of News At Ten. But I would be alarmed if any of them had said the quality of our news programmes had declined. They have not said that."

Sir Trevor McDonald, "is an absolutely central part of ITN", he says. "He resisted BBC blandishments a year ago. He embodies what we all believe in, which is that you can do high- quality journalism for a big audience in an accessible way."

And despite what seems a perpetual supply line of young, attractive, female newsreaders, Mr Tait claims he will always have a roster of newscasters representing all age groups and experience.

"There isn't an over-concentration on how people look on screen. It's inevitable in a world where people are much more design and style-conscious than 10 years ago that how programmes look matters. But what matters for me is what programmes say.

"I don't accept that newscasters have to be very attractive, nor that they are all young. The team of newscasters must be as representative as possible of the audience.

"So they are in their thirties, forties and fifties, men and women - newscasters who make a connection with the audience by saying, 'I'm your generation', and have the ability to transcend that.

"I'm very pleased and rather surprised that with Kirsty Young and now Andrea Catherwood, Channel 5 is the first network in British television to have a woman as its principal newscaster."