It always pays to watch for those sneaky announcements buried in the run up to an important holiday. For the country’s premier media regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), December 22 was one of those days. Four announcements were shovelled out as Australians shopped, partied and headed for a long break.

Buried among the quartet was the nasty: this announcement on the release of a discussion paper that “seeks comments on its cost recovery arrangements”. Sounds innocuous, but what it means is that ACMA is being nudged by the Federal Government to raise more money from “cost recoveries” and “user pays charges”. ACMA says in its discussion paper that it already generates a substantial amount of revenue from cost recovery.

On this basis ACMA is a very efficient organisation but the greedy Howard Government (which seems to be facing budget constraints this year ahead of the election) wants more.

The shortfall between budgeted spending and cost recovery income was only $17.9 million or thereabouts: not much in the overall scheme of things when the total income is in excess of $734 million, but ACMA has done its master’s bidding and says in the consultation paper:

The review process has identified services and products where existing cost recovery fees and charges should be updated to reflect ACMA’s current costs. The existing fees and charges that have been reviewed as part of this process were last reviewed in 2003 and have not been updated since that time. The current process involves reviewing the costs and the attribution of ACMA’s resources to the various activities so that these fees and charges can be updated to reflect current costs and resource consumption.

Sounds like the decision has been made and the consultation process is merely a bit of box-ticking by the mob at ACMA and their masters in Senator Helen Coonan’s department.

So what will go up? In keeping with the Howard Government’s generosity to the commercial TV industry, its licence fees are not being looked at: they’re currently around 9% of revenue.

Some of the proposed changes are actually negative or nil, but others range from rises of less than 10% to a MASSIVE 1,044% increase for ‘price based allocation of transmitter licence for open narrow casting”. As well, seeking an opinion on a control issue from ACMA will cost 392% more while an “opinion on category of broadcasting services’ will cost 865% more.

ACMA says the new charges will apply from the end of 2007, meaning that the two new digital licences to be auctioned off this year will be done under the old cost recovery regime, and will therefore be significantly cheaper.

The timing of this announcement said it all: slip it out on the afternoon of the last business day before a long break for Christmas/New Year.

That tells you how confident ACMA is about its decision, and strongly suggests that it has something that it’s ashamed of. And there is also the strong whiff of media management and manipulation in the appalling timing.