MPs attack News At Ten abolition plan

ITV EXECUTIVES clashed with MPs yesterday over plans to abolish News At Ten.

Members of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee accused the network of putting commercial revenue ahead of the needs of viewers. During a two-hour session at the House of Commons, Gerald Kaufman, the chairman of the committee, accused ITV chief executive, Richard Eyre, of failing to back the change with any hard evidence that audiences would benefit. "In order to maximise your commercial income you are deliberately planning a fall in the number of people who watch your peak-hour bulletin, which is at present the best-watched news programme in Britain," he said.

ITV wants to replace News at Ten with a 6.30pm news programme, and a bulletin at 11pm. It needs to secure approval from the Independent Television Commission (ITC), which is consulting the public and will make a decision on 19 November.

Mr Eyre argued that the combination of the two new news programmes would produce better audiences than the current combination of a 5.40pm bulletin and News at Ten.

But Mr Kaufman said: "There is absolutely no evidence other than your hope and your hunch that if you had a 6.30 bulletin you would get any more than a quarter of the audience," he said. Mr Eyre said that the proposals would encourage more people to tune into news at 11pm, and would help ITV build the younger, more up-market news it desperately needs in order to placate advertisers. Mr Kaufman was disdainful and directed much of his criticism at Mr Eyre's claim that people might choose to watch an 11pm bulletin rather than go to bed.

The committee heard from Sir George Russell, who was chairman of the ITC when ITV tried to shift News at Ten five years ago. Sir George said he believed that the programme should still stay where it is and if ITV felt that a 6.30pm bulletin would improve its audiences, he pointed out, it could introduce one immediately without ITC approval.

ITV bosses looked dejected after they had given evidence.

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, has said he would like to see the programme stay where it is and Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, has said the move might put at risk ITV's capacity to compete with the BBC.

Tory members of the committee suggested that too much political influence is being brought to bear. Mr Eyre acknowledged that the intervention of Mr Blair and Mr Smith puts the ITC in the position of seeming to "snub the Secretary of State, or be cowed by his involvement". Sir George said there was never any one-to-one political pressure put upon him, until it came to moving News at Ten, when letters were received from John Major, Baroness Thatcher and the late John Smith.