US TV presenter Chris Harrison has confirmed his exit from The Bachelor franchise after attracting controversy for defending a contestant accused of racism.

Harrison had been the face of the hugely popular dating show since 2002 but temporarily stepped aside in February.

He had defended contestant Rachael Kirkconnell after pictures emerged of her attending an antebellum-themed party in 2018.

Harrison, 49, called for Kirkconnell to receive “a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion”.

The comments intensified the debate around race on The Bachelor, which had long been criticised for a lack of diversity.

Harrison’s permanent departure was confirmed on Tuesday.

He wrote on Instagram: “I’ve had a truly incredible run as host of The Bachelor franchise and now I’m excited to start a new chapter.

“I’m so grateful to Bachelor Nation for all of the memories we’ve made together. While my two-decade journey is wrapping up, the friendships I’ve made will last a lifetime.”

US outlet Deadline reported Harrison had reached a confidential settlement with show producers.

In a statement to Us Weekly, Warner Horizon and ABC Entertainment said: “Chris Harrison is stepping aside as host of The Bachelor franchise.

“We are thankful for his many contributions over the past 20 years and wish him all the best on his new journey.”

The Bachelor and its spin-off The Bachelorette are among the most popular shows on US TV.

A singleton begins the show with a pool of romantic interests and must whittle down the potential partners to one, usually resulting in a marriage proposal.

Kirkconnell was a contestant on series 25 of The Bachelor, which featured the first black bachelor in Matt James.

He chose her at the end of the series, but they broke up after the pictures emerged of her at a party with an antebellum theme – meaning pre-American Civil War and before the abolition of slavery.

They are now back together.

Harrison, defending Kirkconnell to season 13 Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay, who is black, said: “We all need to have a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion.

“Who is Rachel Lindsay and who is Chris Harrison and who is whatever woke police person out there, who are you (to tell her to speak out)? I’ve heard this a lot of, ‘I think she should’, ‘I think he should’. Who the hell are you? Who are you that you demand that?”

Announcing his temporary departure in February, Harrison said: “By excusing historical racism, I defended it. I invoked the term ‘woke police’, which is unacceptable. I am ashamed over how uninformed I was. I was wrong.”