To remain relevant for the future in an age of diminishing funding, the ABC had no choice but to cut into its programming, the ABC’s managing director Mark Scott told an audience of academics and media insiders in Melbourne last night.

In a fiery speech, Scott blasted the government for cutting funding in the middle of the ABC’s triennial funding agreement, despite a promise not to do so delivered before the election. He said the ABC had no choice but to invest in mobile and digital technologies, but that a crucial source of funding for this was drying up:

“In the past, efficiency savings have allowed us to meet emerging audience content demands. In future, that source of innovation funding will not be available to us — we’ll have to return those efficiency savings to Canberra. And that’s a very real opportunity cost for a media organisation which is Charter bound to be innovative.

“What options do we have, therefore, to meet this reinvestment challenge? The funds must come from elsewhere within the organisation, particularly content.”

That comment has been widely seen as a rebuttal to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s arguments on programming and ABC funding. Two weeks ago, Turnbull wrote a blog post where he said the ABC’s claims that budget cuts were forcing it to cut programming were “not credible”:

“It is wrong to attempt to draw a link between budget cuts, back office savings and decisions made by management about programming. Suggestions that popular programmes or services are at risk because of Budget savings are not credible. The savings sought from the ABC are not of a scale that will require reductions in programme expenditure. The ABC may choose to cut programming rather than tackle back office and administrative costs — but that’s the ABC’s call.”

Scott said he’d hoped by this time he would know how much the ABC was being cut by. “Being unable to finalise our plans is frustrating for the board and executive, and particularly frustrating for our staff,” he said. “I believe we’ve been very patient and I’m sure you can forgive us, five months down the track, for wanting some certainty.”

“The one option we will not be considering is to shut down investment in online or mobile,” he said.

With diminishing funding, Scott said the ABC could either “step back in time” by scaling back its online and mobile presence — as advocated by critics such as the Institute of Public Affairs and Senator Cory Bernardi — or it could continue its transformation for a digital age, giving up some of the mainstays of the past to fund the future. “The ABC management team are passionately committed to securing a compelling future for the public broadcaster, not just a glorious past,” he said. “The tradeoffs and choices are never easy.”

“The one option we will not be considering is to shut down investment in online or mobile,” he said.

Proponents of a smaller, analogue ABC believe this would solve the problems of commercial media, Scott said. It wouldn’t, he argued. “There may be a number of reasons for the woes of News Limited and Fairfax, but the existence of the ABC is not one of them. The problem isn’t that they don’t have enough readers, but that they don’t have enough revenue.”

The speech was the most heated given by the managing director on the issue of ABC funding since his media appearances on the morning after the budget. It comes as the government’s expenditure review committee decides on the quantum of cuts to the public broadcaster, believed to be in the range of 10% of the broadcaster’s funding.

During questions following the speech, Scott was asked whether he saw a future where the ABC didn’t broadcast terrestrially (i.e. using television and radio signals) as currently required by its charter. Such broadcasting currently sees 20% of the ABC’s budget sent to private supplier Broadcast Australia. Scott said as audiences migrated to the internet, there was certainly a growing demand for online content. But he hosed down any imminent change to the ABC charter to allow this potentially cheaper method of distribution to replace the current signal. “It’s really a long way away to say that as a consequence of [that demand] we’ll be able to turn off television,” he said.

Scott also defended recent appointments to the ABC board, saying in his experience the independent appointment process was working well. He welcomed the appointment of former Seven CFO Peter Lewis to the board, saying be brought a wealth of experience. Scott’s comments come despite ABC stakeholders like the CPSU and the Friends of the ABC saying Lewis’ extensive commercial television experience constituted a conflict of interest. Most of the ABC’s current board members have no direct experience in media or journalism.