ABC boss Mark Scott fires back at critics and calls for clarity on size of funding cuts

The managing director of the ABC has tonight taken aim at its critics rejecting suggestions that the public broadcaster retreat from the online space, while also calling on the Coalition government to provide clarity of the size and time frame of proposed funding cuts.

ABC boss Mark Scott

ABC boss Mark Scott pictured at Mumbrella360 earlier this year

In a strongly worded speech to the University of Melbourne, Mark Scott tonight rejected recent comments by the communications minister Malcolm Turnbull that there was no need for cuts to ABC content and that any cost savings imposed on the ABC could be found through “back office savings”.

“The mythical ‘backroom’ solution, for instance, where large savings can be ripped out of a media organisation while content remains untouched, suggests binary decision-making, some separation between two fields that simply does not accord with practice in any organisation,” said Scott, referring to the need to look at both operational and content savings.

“To find substantial savings, you need to look at all parts of your operation,” he said. Scott also told the audience that the public broadcaster was frustrated with the lack of clarity over the extent of cuts.

“Some commentators have suggested the ABC should stop grandstanding and get on with belt-tightening,” said Scott, indirectly referencing the minister’s critique of proposals that would have seen the axing of shows like Lateline.

“The reality is the ABC has already been belt-tightening, and taken steps to deal with what amounts to a $120 million funding cut over four years.”

“In the May budget, the Government introduced the somewhat novel concept of a ‘down payment’. This ‘down payment’ came in the form of an extraction of funds from our triennial funding settlement—a 1% cut to base funding and the termination of the Australia Network contract.. Now, ‘down payments’ normally provide some notion of rights for the payee about  when and how the final payment will be made. But not so in this case.”

Scott also told the forum:  we’ve been waiting for the Government to reveal just how much more they want back from the ABC, some of the ABC’s critics have taken this opportunity to step up and offer us helpful guidance on where cuts must be made, while ABC supporters have been telling us where they must not be made. We’re hopeful that this will, finally, be resolved soon.”

However, the managing director of the ABC rejected calls from the likes Coalition Senator Cory Bernardi and the conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs to scale back its online operations, which the ABC’s critics see as a potential competitor to traditional media struggling to grapple with the online world.

“The one option we will not be considering is to shut down investment in online and mobile. Close iview. Turn off public news online, or stop streaming it to mobiles and tablets,” said Scott.

“This option, if I can call it that, is based on the premise that removing the ABC from the Australian digital media space will mitigate the problems of commercial media.

“It’s a flawed premise. As Malcolm Turnbull has pointed, there may be a number of  reasons for the woes of News Ltd and Fairfax, but the existence of the ABC is not one  of them. The problem is not that they don’t have enough readers, but that they don’t have enough revenue… The ‘downsize the ABC’ protagonists, such as the IPA and Senator Bernardi, are  wrong on many levels.

“Wrong in suggesting that such a retreat would solve the problems of commercial  media organisations. Wrong in suggesting the public wouldn’t notice any difference if the ABC was removed from the digital space.”

The ABC boss said he understood the government’s budget situation and said it would continue to look for efficiencies but he also warned the government that voters believed in and supported the ABC.

“The ABC set out on the search for efficiencies a long time ago,” he said. “The review commissioned by the Minister was simply one more step down a road we’ve long been on. As the Government considers the ABC’s funding future, I hope they also keep in mind the incontestable fact that the ABC is the most trusted and respected media organisation in the country…

“But perhaps one of the greatest lessons of the ABC’s history is that while Governments have come and gone, public affection and respect for the ABC has lasted and prevailed. The Government faces many demands on its budget, and difficult decisions.

“Yet, as there is no doubt where the owners, the voters stand when it comes to #ourABC, the decision about the future of the ABC should be one of their easier ones.”

Nic Christensen 


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