The Independent Television Commission (ITC) defied both public opinion and pressure from politicians, telling ITV that it can replace the 10pm news with an 11pm bulletin, and move its 5.40pm news to 6.30. The changes could be introduced as soon as January.
The ITC admitted that its public consultation process had revealed strong opposition to the move. The commission had received an unprecedented number of letters on the subject, and 82 per cent were opposed to the change.
The ITC decision flies in the face of opinions expressed by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, and the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the committee, said: "We have passed a new milestone in the dumbing down of Britain. The ITC exists to protect standards, but has decided to allow ratings to come first."
Opposition has also been registered by the veteran newsreader Sir Alastair Burnet, its political editor, Michael Brunson, and the long-time reporter Sandy Gall. ITN journalists are dismayed by the change.
The commission's chairman, Sir Robin Biggam, admitted the decision had not been unanimous, and it is understood that the 10-member panel was split seven votes to three.
The ITC let the move go ahead because it sees its role as a regulator not a scheduler. "In a multi-channel age, direct intervention by a regulator to dictate the precise scheduling of a programme, even an institution such as News at Ten, looks increasingly inappropriate," Sir Robin said.
He added that the situation would be reviewed in a year's time, but was not specific about what sanctions would be implemented should there be a deterioration in ITV's news coverage - saying only that "remedial action" would be required.
Peter Rogers, the chief executive of the commission, acknowledged that "the genie could not be put back in the bottle", and that News at Ten has probably gone for ever.