May 2005

Arts & Letters

Zero Millimetres in Tooleybuc

By John Harms

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In the Cricketers Bar at Melbourne’s Windsor Hotel, shortly after the Swans’ AFL grand final victory, a bloke from Sydney told me the ABC was doctoring the weather. He claimed he had heard from an impeccable source that some towns never ever appear on ABC-TV weather reports, particularly in reference to rainfall. These towns are deemed by the ABC to be too small, too obscure or too irrelevant. In some cases the weather information from them is considered too unreliable. I laughed. He continued. And finally he leant over and told me what he really knew. “There is this list,” he confided. “The ABC List of Unfriendly Places. Each state has one.”

This was incredible. Like many people I love the ABC – its sense of public service, its commitment to accuracy, its understanding that weather is an elemental part of the national culture. I love it that TV and radio give so much time to the weather. To hear this accusation was to listen to the very fabric of the country unravelling.

“How do you know about The ABC List of Unfriendly Places?” I asked him. He wasn’t willing to say. But he did say he knew of a tiny place in South Australia – Sandalwood, near Lameroo – that the ABC had ignored for years. “There were times,” he explained, “when the residents knew they had had more rain than the top rainfall location on the ABC weather, and they were wondering what was going on.” What was going on was that Sandalwood was on The ABC List of Unfriendly Places. “Then one week it rained and rained,” my informant continued. “And some weather person rang Sandalwood to say that, despite the ban, he had managed to sneak Sandalwood through. The town would be on the ABC weather that night.”

This was quite bizarre. The bloke gave me his card and said he had more information he wasn’t willing to divulge in a pub. A few days later I tracked down and rang a Sandalwood number. Chris Kerley picked up the phone. She remembered well the time Sandalwood made it onto the ABC. “It was a big talking point, especially for a town with a population of six and a few dogs and cats,” she recalled. “Everyone in the district rang each other and we all sat round watching it. No one got around to taping it, though.”

The people of Sandalwood had heard of The List. They’d even brought the Bureau of Meteorology up to check their rain gauge. Yet still Sandalwood couldn’t make the ABC weather. “It didn’t worry us,” said Chris. “Our rainfall goes in the Advertiser. That’ll do.”

I rang my original source: “Your Sandalwood yarn stacks up.” He laughed. Then he said: “I’ll give you four other places – Rocklea and Bri Bri in Queensland, Tooleybuc in New South Wales and Peake in South Australia.”

I got onto Caroline at Tooleybuc Post Office. She was relatively new to Tooleybuc, a town of 250 people on the NSW side of the Murray River. She was reluctant to talk, citing her responsibilities under the Privacy Act. The mayor was unavailable for comment too. I rang a local councillor, Shirl Hunter, from bustling Moulamein, 120 kilometres away. “I haven’t seen Moulamein on the ABC weather for years,” she lamented. “In the old days we were often on. Usually the hottest place in the state. My parents used to ring from Wollongong and say: ‘Saw you on the ABC weather again last night.’”

But did The List actually exist? I rang Kirsti Harms, a former ABC weather presenter in Adelaide. She’d never heard of The ABC List of Unfriendly Places – although, she added, her tenure did finish some years ago. I rang Jon Faine, the mid-morning radio host in Melbourne. He had never heard of it either. Nor had the Met Bureau’s Geoff Kitchen. “We wouldn’t countenance such a thing,” Geoff said forcefully. “We have our recording stations and that is that.” Another senior meteorologist claimed The List was news to him. “But I’m new,” he conceded. “I’ve only been here 38 years.”

I rang Victoria’s ABC-TV weatherman Paul Higgins, a cheery fellow and respected presenter. I asked him how the ABC gets its data. “Some comes directly from the bureau,” he said, “and each state gets a graphics package from The Weather Company. We’re free to use that as we wish.”

Paul was very friendly. I felt awkward asking him if the ABC actually excludes places from appearing on the weather. “Quite the opposite,” he said. “We love the small and isolated places. It’s great that they get a run on TV. People go to their atlases. Sometimes we get calls asking where places are.”

I found this reassuring. But I had to ask: “What about this list the ABC has? What about The ABC List of Unfriendly Places? Is there really a list?”

“Oh, The List,” he chortled. “Yeah, there’s a list.” My eyes widened. “It’s not to exclude places, though,” he went on. “It’s a list of ABC-friendly names. I’ve gone through and edited The List myself. I got rid of all the duplications and those places that are so obscure nobody knows them. I cross-check everything myself, but in a busy newsroom sometimes the weather report is compiled by someone who doesn’t have an intimate knowledge of places and weather. The List is there to assist.”

So The List exists. I wanted to ask Paul about the good people of Sandalwood and Tooleybuc, but they are not in his jurisdiction. What I needed was to see The List. I rang The Weather Company in Sydney and spoke to Brett, a senior meteorologist. I asked Brett about The ABC List of Unfriendly Places. He said he knew The List because a copy of it was sitting right in front of him.

“Can you send it to me?” I enquired.

“It’s very, very big,” he parried.

“Why?”

“It has every Bureau of Meteorology weather station in Australia on it. Pages and pages. And every place has a tick or a cross next to it. A tick means a place is ABC-friendly. A cross means it’s not.”

“What about Tooleybuc?” I asked, feeling like counsel for the citizens of Tooleybuc.

“Cross,” he said.

I was outraged. “That’s outrageous,” I said.

“No Tooleybuc,” he sighed. I could sense the disappointment in his voice. “I can’t comment.”

“I’ve got to see the whole list,” I said.

“You better talk to Mark Hardy.”

Mark Hardy kindly rang me. He is the boss of The Weather Company, which has developed its own software to generate the best possible weather information for media outlets. This software finds the top five rainfall readings in each state and automatically places them on a graphic. “When it was first developed,” he said, “the top five could be from the same town: Bendigo P.O., Bendigo Racecourse, Bendigo Airport, Bendigo Bridge, Bendigo Golf Club. Since then we’ve just ticked one for Bendigo – say, the Bendigo P.O. – to eliminate duplication.”

“But surely,” I retorted, “that means that if there isn’t a drop at the Bendigo P.O. and there’s five millimetres at the racecourse, Bendigo doesn’t have a chance of appearing in the top five.”

“That never happens,” he replied with the logic of a man who has a pecuniary interest in the weather.

“But what about the ticks and crosses?”

“Look,” he said. “Many of these places are not inhabited – it’s just a station on a riverbank or a crossroad in the middle of nowhere. So some places are crossed so as not to be included.”

“This means that small towns appear at the whim of the ABC person doing the ticking,” I observed. “It’s completely dependent on their knowledge of geography.”

“Yes.”

“Who is responsible for The List?”

“There is a national editorial weather policy.”

“Who decides that?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to him in years.”

I put down the phone and put my fist to my forehead. Oh God – how many Tooleybucs are out there?

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