Twitter News Index: Royal Commission the most tweeted topic

By Axel Bruns, Queensland University of Technology

The latest edition of our Australian Twitter News Index arrives in a somewhat more timely fashion than the previous one did.

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Unfortunately, though, our data are somewhat compromised by the fact that regular scheduled maintenance on our Twitter data servers took place on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week – which means we missed a good chunk of the debate around the Royal Commission into child abuse in institutions, and particularly around Catholic Cardinal George Pell’s press conference about the matter. Very unfortunate, but there’s little we can do about it, I’m afraid.

ATNIX Week 46: 12-18 Nov. 2012

Because the Twitter API makes it easier to backfill missing data on minor than major tracking terms, such outages tend to affect our data on the most widely linked-to Australian news sites more strongly than those on the minor sites. Despite the major stories about the Royal Commission, therefore (which would usually boost the numbers of the leading sites disproportionally), the overall distribution of links across our news sites remains little changed from last week.

Notwithstanding the server outages, we captured some 133,000 tweets linking to these news sites during week 46; that’s down 17,000 from last week, and gives us a rough estimate of the volume of tweets we missed during the outage. With those caveats, the tweets we did capture distribute across the leading sites in a nonetheless familiar pattern:

ATNIX 46/2012: News Sites 上海性息网网,mappingonlinepublics.net/

The comparatively small share of tweets pointing to the Sydney Morning Herald and ABC News is an artefact of our outage; by contrast, the comparatively strong showing of news.com.au this week is genuine, as the persistent hair growth spammer which had plagued our dataset over the past few weeks has finally moved on.

The distribution of tweets across our opinion and commentary sites may also underestimate the marketshare of major sites, and chiefly the SMH. The total number of opinion tweets we captured this week is down slightly from last week, at 18,500, but it is very likely that without the outages we would have captured a substantially larger number of such tweets, especially on Tuesday and Wednesday.

ATNIX 46/2012: Opinion Sites 上海性息网网,mappingonlinepublics.net/

Given these limitations, then, our analysis this week must necessarily focus on the days for which we do have good data – starting with Monday. Here, we see a strong spike in sharing activity for several leading sites (including the SMH, ABC News, and news.com.au), which would most likely have carried through into the following day; by 8 a.m. AEST on Tuesday (before our servers were shut down), at least, Twitter news sharing had already well surpassed the activity levels set that time on the previous day.

ATNIX 46/2012: News Sites 上海性息网网,mappingonlinepublics.net/

While Monday is too early in the evolution of the child abuse crisis to be exclusively dominated by that story, there nonetheless is substantial focus on the issue. Some 270 links to the Sydney Morning Herald reference an article about calls for Cardinal Pell to close the religious order St John of God because of the scandal, while ABC News articles about Tony Abbott’s and Tony Windsor’s support for a Royal Commission receive some 140 and 130 tweets, respectively. A further 200 tweets link to the live stream of ABC News 24, which provided live coverage of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement of the Royal Commission. Pieces on Gillard’s consideration of an inquiry, and subsequently on her announcement of the Royal Commission, also serve as the most linked stories at The Australian that day.

The following days’ data are too problematic to examine in any detail; by Friday 16 Nov., however, we can trust our data again, and see another pronounced spike in activity especially for SMH and ABC News. By this time, however, the Royal Commission has already been announced, and even Cardinal Pell’s press conference is no longer at the centre of Twitter discussion. Instead, the SMH spike is driven by the reaction to a tweet by well-known Crikey psephologist blogger Possum Comitatus, which was widely retweeted on the day:

Tony Abbott just said this on Gardasil 上海性息网网,上海夜生活,/Sb5SKHcx Meanwhile, the reality was actually this 上海性息网网,上海夜生活,/2FXVbk8T

The tweet juxtaposes an SMH article from 2006 (which has then-PM John Howard overruling his Health Minister Tony Abbott about Abbott’s intended delay to the start date of the government’s cervical cancer immunisation programme) with Abbott’s tweet on Friday morning, taking the credit for the immunisation programme. It’s highly unusual to see such a comparatively ancient link trouble our weekly news index – but it demonstrates the potential of social media for fact-checking the statements of politicians. Some 260 of the tweets pointing to the Sydney Morning Herald site on Friday pointed to the 2006 article, turning it into an unlikely lead story by a substantial margin.

The simultaneous spike in ABC News links, on the other hand, continues to focus on its Royal Commission coverage: here, the leading Friday story is a piece about the support which police whistleblower Peter Fox had received on Twitter, following his Lateline interview. This also continues a long-term trend which sees articles with relevant to social media being shared especially widely on social media, of course.

ATNIX 46/2012: Opinion Sites 上海性息网网,mappingonlinepublics.net/

The patterns for opinion sites and sections are less pronounced; the minor spikes on Monday and Friday are due for the most part simply to the server outage-induced lull in between. There is, however, an unusual spike in links to the otherwise fairly underrepresented opinion section of The Australian, and this spike provides a final postscript to the Abbott story: a 2006 opinion piece in The Australian, which describes Abbott as ‘a national dill’ over his opposition to the cervical cancer vaccination programme, was shared by several Twitter users – including prominent blogger Grog’s Gamut and Health Minister Tanya Plibersek – and accounted for some 250 of the 450 tweets referencing The Australian’s opinion section on Friday.

Message to politicians: sometimes Twitter users have very long memories.

Standard background information: this analysis is based on tracking all tweets which contain links pointing to the URLs of a large selection of leading Australian news and opinion sites. For technical reasons, it does not contain ‘button’ retweets, but manual retweets (“RT @user …”) are included. Datasets for those sites which cover more than just news and opinion (abc.net.au, sbs.com.au, ninemsn.com.au) are filtered to exclude irrelevant sections of those sites (e.g. abc.net.au/tv, catchup.ninemsn.com.au). For our analysis of ‘opinion’ link sharing, we include only those sub-sections of mainstream sites which contain opinion and commentary (e.g. abc.net.au/unleashed, articles on theaustralian.com.au which include ‘/opinion’ in the URL), and compare them with dedicated opinion and commentary sites.

See the posts tagged ‘ATNIX’ at Mapping Online Publics for a full collection of previous results.

Axel Bruns does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Truce efforts intensify as Gaza death toll mounts

With Egypt at the centre of efforts to broker a ceasefire, Palestinian officials said it was possible a deal would be reached “today or tomorrow”.

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But there was no letup in the bloodshed in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Medics said women and children accounted for most of Sunday’s dead, among them five babies and toddlers, killed in Israeli air strikes.

In the day’s most lethal raid, at least nine members of the same family — five of them children — were among 10 people killed when an Israeli missile destroyed a family home in Gaza City, the health ministry said.

At the scene, medics and bystanders all pitched in to remove the rubble to dig out the bodies in the hope of finding survivors, as people watched in shock, some weeping openly.

The latest violence hiked the Palestinian casualty toll to 77 dead and 700 injured in some 100 hours of raids, while three Israelis have been killed and more than 50 injured by rocket fire since Wednesday.

An Israeli air strike in the early hours of Monday morning leveled the Abbas police headquarters in Gaza City, but nobody was killed.

With Israel warning it could further escalate its operations in Gaza, US President Barack Obama on Sunday said it was “preferable” for the Gaza crisis to be resolved without a “ramping up” of Israeli military activity.

In Cairo, senior Hamas officials said Egyptian-mediated talks with Israel to end the bloodshed were “positive” but now focused on the possible stumbling block of guaranteeing the terms of a truce.

An outcome acceptable to Hamas would involve assurances about the United States, Israel’s main backer, being the “guaranteeing party,” one official said on condition of anonymity.

Security officials in Cairo said an Israeli envoy had also arrived in the Egyptian capital on Sunday for the talks.

Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, meanwhile, met with both Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and Islamic Jihad chief Abdullah Shalah to discuss “Egyptian efforts to end the aggression,” his office said without giving details.

‘ABSOLUTE CONDITION’ FOR A TRUCE

But Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman insisted that “the first and absolute condition for a truce is stopping all fire from Gaza,” and that all armed groups would have to commit to it.

Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel was ready to “significantly expand” its operation. He spoke ahead of talks with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who is on a whirlwind truce tour of the region.

Fabius later said his country was willing to help broker a truce. “War is not an option, it is never an option …There are two key words: urgency and ceasefire,” he told journalists in Tel Aviv.

Early on Sunday, Israeli aircraft hit two media centres in Gaza City, wounding at least eight journalists, one of whom lost a leg, health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra told AFP.

The military defended the strike, saying it had targeted Hamas operational communications and sought to minimise civilian casualties.

Amid the truce efforts, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said “a ground invasion of Gaza would lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy that they have in this situation.”

On Sunday, about 125 rockets hit Israel, while scores more were intercepted in mid-flight by the Iron Dome defence system, the army said.

Throughout the day, two were fired at Tel Aviv, triggering air raid sirens in the commercial metropolis for the fourth day. Iron Dome intercepted both, police said.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whose remit is limited to the West Bank, on Sunday urged his people to stage peaceful demonstrations against Israel’s military offensive on Gaza.

And around 500 Egyptian activists arrived in Gaza City and visited its Shifa hospital in a show of solidarity with its people, officials said.

Since the start of its Operation Pillar of Defence, launched after the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaabari in an air strike, the Israeli army says it has struck more than 1,100 targets in Gaza as militants have fired more than 800 rockets over the border.

Romney maps out five-day election end game

The answer should come as no surprise: Ohio, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire, battlegrounds which election experts define as the biggest prizes in the 2012 race, will feature prominently — as well as a few Democrat-leaning states that the Republican challenger insists are in play.

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Romney is locked in the tightest of races with President Barack Obama, who is also on a mad dash across swing states ahead of election day on November 6.

Romney starts his Friday campaigning in Wisconsin, which has voted for the Democratic Party since 1988 but which his team says has come into play given Obama’s slipping poll numbers there over the past month.

Both candidates will then converge on pivotal Ohio, where they have sunk vast amounts of money into television advertising.

No Republican has clinched the White House without also winning the Buckeye State, and so after a stop in Columbus, Romney will kick off one of the biggest events of his campaign.

The “Real Recovery Road Rally” in West Chester, Ohio will feature his running mate Paul Ryan and dozens of prominent Republicans such as ex-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Senator John McCain.

On Saturday Romney will blitz across New Hampshire, Iowa and Colorado.

And on Sunday, after bouncing back to Iowa, he will stop in Pennsylvania, another Democrat-leaning state that the campaign hopes to poach from the president.

Pennsylvania has been in Obama’s column for months, with the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls showing the incumbent up 4.6 percentage points.

But Team Romney has consistently dismissed polls as giving an incomplete picture in many states — Pennsylvania and Ohio among them — where they feel the challenger has built recent momentum that they argue could translate into stronger-than-expected turnout.

On Monday Romney will make a last-gasp push in Ohio, before returning to New Hampshire for the final “victory rally” of his campaign.

Romney will watch the election results Tuesday night from Massachusetts, where he served as state governor from 2003 to 2007.

Notably absent from the published schedule? Monumental battlegrounds Florida and Virginia — although Romney visited the Sunshine State all day Wednesday and the latter all day Thursday.

Mali’s Tuareg rebels advance as world condemns coup

The African Union temporarily suspended Mali, Europe froze aid and the United States threatened to follow suit amid a chorus of condemnation over the coup in a country key to fighting drug trafficking and extremism.

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But AU officials will travel to Mali for talks with the coup leaders in a joint delegation with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) next week.

The coup opened the way for Tuareg rebels to deepen their hold on the north, with their National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) saying it had seized the town of Anefis between the key cities Gao and Kidal.

The MNLA said on its website it would continue to press its offensive as part of its military campaign for a homeland in the north of the west African nation.

It was the Tuareg rebellion that sparked the coup by soldiers, who say they have been ill-equipped to fight off the desert nomads,

The Tuareg force has been strengthened by the return of heavily armed fighters who previously fought for Libya’s slain dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

On Wednesday, army troops attacked the presidential palace and seized state institutions, before appearing on television to announce they had toppled the “incompetent” regime of President Amadou Toumani Toure.

On Friday, Mali’s coup leaders again took to television to deny reports of the death of their leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo.

Earlier, Sanogo himself reassured journalists that Toure was “doing very well”, and that members of the government arrested by soldiers were safe.

“We will not touch a hair on their heads. I will hand them over to the courts so that the Malian people know the truth,” insisted the green-beret officer, who says he has spent time at training programmes in US.

In separate comments to the BBC, he insisted he would stand down once he had ensured the army was properly equipped to tackle the Tuareg rebellion.

The problem at the moment was “a lack of equipment, a lack of training and our comrades are dying all the time,” he said.

“So once this has been fixed, I’ll be able to say ‘Ok, go for election’ in a short period of time. I promise.”

Rights group Amnesty International said that at least three people had been shot dead and 28 wounded in Thursday’s coup, while the local Red Cross said it had treated 40 people, mostly for bullet wounds.

Few people ventured out of their homes in the tense capital Bamako Friday, where some soldiers had turned to looting.

The international community has acted swiftly against the junta.

The AU Peace and Security Council announced it was suspending Mali until the government had been restored, said Paul Zolo, Nigeria’s envoy to Ethiopia and the AU.

AU Commission chief Jean Ping said the AU and ECOWAS would send a joint team to Mali to seek a return of constitutional order.

And the heads of ECOWAS were due to hold a special meeting in Ivory Coast’s main city Abidjan on Tuesday, a source in the Ivorian ministry for African integration said.

The EU’s executive arm said it was suspending development work as its foreign ministers called for the return of civilian rule, but direct support to the population and humanitarian aid would continue.

Drought means that Mali is threatened with a food crisis.

The World Bank and the African Development Bank suspended aid after the coup, Mali’s first in 21 years, and the US threatened to lift $70 million in military and economic aid if constitutional rule was not returned.

France, China and Mali’s neighbours Algeria, Mauritania and Niger joined the chorus of condemnation. The United Nations also condemned the coup.

Twelve Malian political heavyweights condemned the coup, which came just five weeks before a presidential election in which Toure had been due to step down.

Mali is usually seen as politically stable, but unrest in the north, where Tuareg tribes have long felt ignored by a southern government and where Al-Qaeda has also taken root, has created a major security problem.

Under Toure’s leadership, Mali had been hailed as a growing democratic success, but in mid-January the Tuareg launched a fresh rebellion aimed at winning independence, which has seen up to 206,000 people flee their homes.

New Chinese game based on disputed islands

A video game backed by China’s military that lets players fight enemy forces in islands disputed between Beijing and Tokyo is set for release.

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“Glorious Mission Online”, China’s answer to “Call of Duty”, marks the 86th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The game, an online version of an earlier first-person shooter used by the PLA to train troops, features the East China Sea islands known as Diaoyu by Beijing and Senkaku by Tokyo.

Tensions have been mounting over the islands, which are claimed by China but controlled by Japan. Beijing’s vessels regularly sail into the disputed waters and, according to state media, tell Japanese ships they are encroaching on its territory.

A press release for the game says: “Players … will fight alongside Chinese armed forces and use weapons to tell the Japanese that ‘Japan must return our stolen territory!'”

Images from the game’s website are labelled “Guard the Diaoyu islands”, and a trailer posted online features shots of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

It also shows planes taking off from a computer-generated version of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which went into service last year.

The game was due to become available only at 5.00pm (1900 AEST) on Thursday, but its designers Giant Interactive Group, who developed it jointly with the PLA, told AFP millions of users had already registered to play.

Giant co-operated closely with the PLA while working on the game to ensure that weapons looked authentic and soldiers’ voices were accurate, said company vice-president Gu Kai.

“Our relationship with the military is like the relationship between the US army and Hollywood,” he said.

The release comes at a time of increased fears over the PLA’s expansion among China’s neighbours – Beijing is also in dispute with several countries in the South China Sea.

But Gu linked the game with attempts by the PLA to present itself as more transparent, including inviting foreign media to tour military bases, to boost its image abroad.

“It’s about soft power,” he said. “Through the game we want to allow ordinary people to gain an understanding of the army, which is often seen as closed-off and mysterious.

“In Western games the People’s Liberation Army is always the enemy, this is the first game where it is on the good side.”

Maggie Du, director of Giant’s Centre for Overseas Business Development, insisted “Glorious Mission Online” would not add to the tensions between China and its neighbours.

“We need to be related to actual events, but it’s not about politics, it’s a commercial consideration to attract customers.”

The company hopes to attract foreign gamers to fight alongside the PLA, she added, and possible future versions of the game designed for export might look to avoid identifying participant nations.

“We might replace the US and Russian armies with robots or zombies or something like that,” she said.

Disappointment over refugee sponsorship scheme

Transcript from SBS World News Australia Radio.

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The pilot will enable community groups to sponsor people in humanitarian need to come to Australia.

But the cost of the visa, which is to be paid by the sponsor, is proving unpopular.

And there is frustration that the up to 500 people to be brought to Australia under the program will not be in addition to Australia’s current refugee quota.

LISTEN: Phillippa Carisbrooke reports.

The private sponsorship scheme is expected to come into effect early next year,

It will enable community groups and charities to apply to sponsor people in humanitarian need to come and live in Australia.

The Refugee Council of Australia has welcomed the concept, but is disappointed at the size of the visa application charge to be paid by the sponsor.

Chief Executive Paul Power says the $20,000 to $30,000 charge is four to five time higher than his organisation had envisaged, and will not be affordable for many community groups.

“For instance if their goal over a couple of years was to resettle four families they would be looking at paying 80-thousand to 120-thousand dollars in visa application charges. And on top of that would have all the other charges associated with a resettlement. The airfares the practical assistance to the families in the early stage and a considerable amount of volunteer effort. Given that this would be being conducted by volunteer organisations and the money would be donated money and that charge is really a bit too steep. But, I think there are groups that are so desperate to resettle people that they would go to any extend to be able to raise funds to resettle people who are close to them who are in desperate need.”

Mr Power says when the Refugee Council consulted with community organisations about the proposed pilot, some expressed concern that it might be simply a cost-cutting measure by the government.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says such concerns have not been raised with him.

“In the consultation that we have done, and which I have done, directly with service providers, with respect not through the Refugee Council, that has not been raised at all. In all the consultations I have done shows people are very keen to be involved in this. They recognise this is a good opportunity to help their communities and they will be doing so.”

Mr Bowen says charging sponsors $20,000 to $30,000 per application will keep the cost to the taxpayer to a minimum.

“We’ll still be providing a range of services to people. People will still have access to Medicare, still have access to certain welfare provisions. And there will be all the processing costs. We will be looking to the service provider to provide accommodation and key settlement assistance and help them into employment etc. So this is about making sure that the Australia taxpayer is not disadvantaged by the implementation of this scheme.”

AMES helps new and recently arrived refugees settle in Victoria.

It fears the private sponsorship program could give rise to a two-tier system.

Chief Executive Cath Scarth says there is a danger smaller, less well established community groups could find themselves excluded from the program due to lack of resources.

“There are clearly those longer established refugee communities who have been in Australia longer, clearly have been working, perhaps are here in larger numbers and so can support something like this. So they have if you like the financial capacity, not just in terms of the 20 to 30-thousand, but also the capacity in terms of providing housing and providing other support but refugees. Where as you look at groups that may have been arriving more recently in the last five-years or so and may not be in that position.”

The announcement the 500 refugees resettled through the pilot will not be in addition to the 20,000 vulnerable and displaced people resettled though the government’s expanded humanitarian intake program in 2012-13, has come as a disappointment to the National Council of the St Vincent de Paul Society.

Chief Executive Dr John Falzon says it removes a major incentive for private sponsorship.

“The bottom line is that the incentive to be involved in this scheme has been somewhat dissipated by the fact these are not additional places. One will not be surprised if the response to this pilot is somewhat cynical in the sense that the government may well be perceived as saying well if you want these people to have an opportunity to come here that badly, you the community sector will need to foot to bill. You know it’s a sad day when charity becomes the default position for the provision of services and goods that should properly be the responsibility of government.”

Minister Bowen says he has been contacted by a number of community groups and charities over the years wishing to sponsor refugees, and that the pilot will now allow them to do so.

But asked if the St Vincent de Paul Society would take part in the pilot, Doctor Falzon said the costs involved were prohibitive.

He says the charity is already under financial strain catering for the needs of asylum seekers living in the community while they await decisions on their refugee applications.

“I’d be loathe to say never, because I think that would be a rash response. But I will say that the feedback that I am getting from many sections of my organisation is that in some parts of Australia there has been a great deal of pressure placed on our members to be able to meet the needs of people that the government has basically abandoned in the community without the kind of essential material and social support they need while awaiting a determination on their status.”

Blog: Greek election and Australian impact

We should know just before the end of Monday’s trading day who won the Greek election and gain a better understanding of whether the country will keep or dump the euro currency.

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There has been a two- week blackout, so there is no recent indication of which party is likely to win, however, earlier polls suggested 78 per cent of Greeks want to still stay in the euro.

For global investors, they’d prefer a straight pro-austerity New Democracy win, which would push through the necessary changes for Greece to continue receiving financial aid, although that straight out election win, may not happen.

What’s more likely, is that the party may get the largest percentage of votes, but not the 151 seats needed to form an outright government. New Democracy would then be asked by the President to form a government by reaching out to other parties, preferably with PASOK which is also pro-bailout.

What the markets won’t want to see is the potential for another election, likely in July or August, which may happen if New Democracy still doesn’t reach 151 seats, even with minority support. That’s because uncertainty would continue, and if there is anything investors don’t like and often use as an excuse to sell their holdings, is uncertainty.

A straight Syriza, anti-austerity win is being seen as a low possibility, although the European Union may renegotiate the bailout terms because it would be just too costly to have Greece leave the euro. On the off chance Syriza will stick to its guns, and not negotiate, it would open the path for a Grexit.

What would likely happen is the EU and IMF would stop funding Athens. The IMF does though, have a fund to bail out non- euro member countries, but that would require further negotiations. That in turn would force Greece to print its own currency, the New Drachma, to pay their loans.

However, the currency would likely immediately depreciate, some predicting as much as 70 per cent.

That would send the country into economic ruin, in the short term.

To get there though, the new anti-austerity government would have to leave the euro in secret, and freeze ATMs and bank accounts. It would be an attempt to prevent Greeks from withdrawing their savings from Greek banks en mass, to either hold physically as cash, or deposit in other European banks to prevent the immediate depreciation.

But Greeks are already taking action, ripping their cash from banks. If it continues to happen, a new banking crisis would emerge resulting in Greece defaulting on its debts.

Shane Oliver from AMP Capital predicts an initial GDP slump of around 15 per cent, pushing unemployment to more than 30 per cent.

The European public sector would also lose out, because of its $380billion exposure to the country.

Even worse, is the threat of contagion, a sense of, if Greece can exit, so can other nations.

Portugal, Ireland, Spain and possibly Italy could be at risk.

So how does all of this impact Australia?

Firstly, it will affect Chinese confidence which in turn impacts demand for Australian commodities; secondly bank funding, potentially driving up interest rates locally as wholesale funding costs rise; and thirdly falling sharemarkets.

The irony is that a Greek exit may, in the long term be good for Greece. Despite the potential of years of recession, and possible social unrest early on, a lower currency would give it a competitive edge in the following decade when it comes to exports, and its biggest contributor to growth, tourism would boom for the simple fact, it would be dramatically cheaper to holiday there.

We will get a clearer indication at the beginning of next week as to the future of Greece.

IG Markets says the Greek polls will close at 2am on Monday AEST, with the first official projections expected at 4:45am. Two-thirds of the votes should be counted by 8:45am with the final results expected just before the markets close locally, at 3pm.

In the words of a former 2009 Greek Eurovision contestant, one Sakis Rouvas, will it be “This is our night, time for a change baby, get rid of the old, take a hold and be free”, or “Counting down, the night of nights, getting now, to stand and fight, don’t back down, just look within, do it now, I know you will”.

Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

Putin vetoes Syria sanctions

And as world leaders Friday voiced fears the violence-wracked nation stood on the brink of civil war, the UN Human Rights Council ordered an independent probe to hunt those guilty of last week’s massacre in Houla.

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The London-based Syrian Observatory says as many as 2,300 of the more than 13,400 people killed since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March last year have died since April 12.

But despite the relentless violence, there are sharp differences between Arab and Western governments and Damascus allies Beijing and Moscow on the way forward.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met separately with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, warned the situation in Syria was “extremely dangerous” and said he saw emerging signs of a civil war.

But he struck a fiery tone in a joint press conference with Hollande, saying “sanctions hardly ever work in an efficient manner” and indicating that Bashar al-Assad’s departure would not in itself resolve the crisis.

“What is happening in Libya? What is happening in Iraq? Has it become safer there?” he said in Paris. “We propose to act in an accurate, balanced manner at least in Syria.”

But Hollande kept up the pressure for decisive action, insisting that Assad’s departure was “a prerequisite for a political transition” and that “there must be sanctions” against his regime.

“Bashar al-Assad’s regime has conducted itself in an unacceptable and intolerable manner. It has committed acts that disqualify itself” from governing, said Hollande.

Earlier, Merkel and Putin found common ground on backing the peace mission of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan but the former UN chief himself admitted to frustration at the slow progress he was making in staunching the bloodshed.

After his talks in Berlin, the Russian president underlined his opposition to military intervention to stop the bloodshed.

“You cannot do anything by force,” Putin told reporters.

He also hit back at suggestions Moscow was supplying arms for use in Syria. “As far as arms supplies are concerned, Russia does not supply the weapons that could be used in a civil conflict,” Putin said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, charged that Russia has continued to supply arms to the regime of Syrian President Assad.

“We know there has been a very consistent arms trade, even during the past year, coming from Russia to Syria” and that this had strengthened the Assad regime, she said in Oslo.

In Geneva, the Human Rights Council ordered an independent probe to hunt those guilty of the massacre in Houla that rights chief Navi Pillay said could constitute a “crime against humanity”.

Forty-one of the 47-member council backed a call urging an investigation by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, set up by the council last year to gather evidence on alleged rights abuses.

Russia, China and Cuba voted against the resolution, which they said was “unbalanced” as it presumed the guilt of the Syrian authorities for the May 25 massacre of 108 people, mostly children and women, in the central Syrian town.

Speaking in Lebanon, Annan spoke of his frustration at the slow progress in implementing his six-point peace plan that was supposed to begin with a ceasefire from April 12 but that has been violated daily.

“We are all impatient and frustrated over the violence, over the killings. I am frustrated even more maybe than most of you,” said Annan.

“Bold action has to be taken by President Assad in Syria to put real energy into the implementation of the six-point peace plan.”

But the rebel Free Syrian Army said the Annan plan had failed and announced that it would resume “defensive operations” after the expiry of a noon (0900 GMT) ultimatum for the regime to adhere to the plan.

FSA spokesman Kassem Saadeddine told AFP that “we will not go on the offensive because we do not want to be singled out as the ones responsible for breaking the peace initiative.”

China’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Liu Zhenmin told the rights council meeting that an immediate ceasefire was necessary, otherwise the situation could lead “perhaps even to civil war.”

And after talks with UN chief Ban Ki-moon in Istanbul, British Foreign Secretary William Hague voiced similar concerns.

“Both the secretary general and I — and also the opposition in Syria — think that Syria is on the edge of a catastrophic situation… on the edge of an all-out civil war and the collapse of Syria into sectarian strife,” Hague said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least another 45 people, including 12 soldiers and eight people in the Damascus region, were killed across the country.

The UN ceasefire observer mission in Syria is now at “full strength,” with nearly 300 military monitors in the conflict-stricken country, a UN peacekeeping spokesman said Friday.

23 killed in attack on Pakistan Shiites

A suicide attack on a Shiite Muslim procession in Pakistan’s city of Rawalpindi overnight killed 23 people and wounded another 62, a police rescue spokeswoman told AFP.

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The attack came as Pakistan welcomed Muslim leaders for a rare international summit in Islamabad. Deeba Shehnaz said the death toll rose from 16 after patients, who were critically wounded in the attack, died from their injuries in various hospitals.

Police used lamps and torches to work through the night, bagging evidence at the scene after the Shiite procession was hit en route to the mosque where it was heading for the holy month of Muharram — a magnet for sectarian attacks.

In addition to the 23 people killed, rescue service spokesman Waqas Rehman told AFP that another 32 people were wounded including nine children.

Rawalpindi is adjacent to Islamabad, where thousands of extra police and paramilitary forces have been mobilised for the Developing 8 (D8) summit starting later on Thursday.

Leaders from Egypt, Iran and Turkey are among those at the summit of mainly Muslim nations which is meant to promote trade and investment. But Israel’s latest offensive in Gaza is set to loom large, even if a truce is now in effect.

The ceasefire was agreed in a deal between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas that was announced in Egypt on the eighth day of violence in and around Gaza. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was slated to join the Islamabad talks.

As well as the hosts Pakistan, the D8 also comprises Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria — the only member which is not majority-Muslim. Its population is roughly divided between Muslims and Christians.

Pakistan wants the summit to strengthen its international standing and help “remove misconceptions (about the country) created in a section of international media”, a government statement said in the buildup to the gathering.

In addition to the security deployment, construction work has been suspended around the diplomatic enclave to provide “God willing, foolproof security”, Islamabad police chief Bani Amin told AFP.

But Wednesday’s long day of militant violence was an unwelcome reminder that Pakistan remains in the grip of unrest largely orchestrated by homegrown Taliban extremists bitterly opposed to the country’s US-allied government.

In the southwestern city of Quetta, bombers hit an army vehicle escorting children home from school, killing four soldiers and a woman, police said.

More than 20 people were wounded when the bomb, planted on a motorcycle, was detonated by remote control, said city police chief Hamid Shakeel.

Shopkeeper Mohammad Talib said he was returning to his shop after prayers at a nearby mosque.

“Soon after, I heard a huge blast. There was dust and smoke. I saw an army vehicle in flames. Shards of glass were littered on the road. There was panic, people were screaming, others were fleeing the area,” he said.

Two people were killed in Pakistan’s largest city Karachi when a bomb-laden motorcycle collided with a rickshaw near a Shiite mosque, city police chief Iqbal Hussain told AFP.

In northwest Pakistan, four police died when gunmen ambushed a patrol in Bannu district, police official Nisar Ahmed Tanoli said. And a roadside bomb elsewhere killed another police official.

Because of such violence in the years since the September 11 attacks of 2001, Pakistan has rarely had a chance to host major international gatherings, and the government had hoped to use the D8 summit to present a different image.

Having received thanks from US President Barack Obama for helping to broker the Israel-Hamas truce, Egypt’s Morsi is scheduled to address a joint session of the Pakistani parliament on Friday.

EU budget summit ends in failure

EU President Herman Van Rompuy insisted however that progress had been made in the two days of bitter bargaining.

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He forecast that a deal would be made when leaders meet again next year.

Tensions between rich and poor states over funding for economic development and Britain’s strident demands for cuts in the mammoth budget — covering seven years from 2014 to 2020 — had set the summit on a rocky course from the start.

Britain was cast as the chief spoiler, with Prime Minister David Cameron arriving with a threat to wield his veto unless spending was frozen in real terms. He argued that in times of economic crisis, the EU too must make deep cuts.

But Cameron said as leaders went home without a deal that his country was not alone in seeking to reduce EU spending.

“The deal on the table was not one I was prepared to accept, nor were a number of other countries,” he said of talks that a former European premier described as “like a Turkish bazaar”.

The last time the EU had to agree on seven-year budget negotiations was in 2005, when it took six months and a failed summit during which Britain deployed its veto.

Nearly a year after angering his European counterparts by vetoing a pact to resolve the eurozone crisis, Cameron irritated many by demanding cuts to perks enjoyed by so-called “eurocrats” — the well-paid EU civil servants frequently lampooned by the British press.

He failed to get them.

“The (European) Commission did not offer a single euro in savings (on perks) and I just don’t think that was good enough,” he said.

BRITISH, SWEDES, DUTCH MADE ‘VIRULENT’ DEMANDS FOR CUTS

An EU diplomat said the main obstacle at the summit was Cameron’s demand for reductions in the planned trillion dollar budget, with Sweden and The Netherlands the other “virulent” countries seeking cuts.

Cameron had vowed to bring down the budget from a proposed 1.047 trillion euros ($1.347 trillion) to 886 billion euros.

Van Rompuy submitted new proposals Friday to bring the budget to 972 billion euros, or just over one percent of the total economic output of the union that is home to 500 million people.

Those proposals aimed to meet demands to maintain so-called “cohesion” funds to help poorer nations and regions catch up with richer ones, as well as spending on the Common Agricultural Policy, the farm subsidy programme cherished by France that is the budget’s biggest single item.

But that was not enough, and EU leaders threw in the towel.

As recriminations began to fly, a British source criticised a lack of preparation by Van Rompuy for the summit, saying it made negotiations more difficult.

French President Francois Hollande took a pop at Cameron, saying he had come to the summit with a “set priority” to protect the British rebate.

“I too could say that I want my discount,” he said, adding that Britain was a smaller net contributor to the EU budget than France, which does not claim a rebate.

Britain has claimed that right since then prime minister Margaret Thatcher obtained one in 1984 on the grounds that London was paying too much into the bloc’s coffers.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, which forks out by far the most money to keep the EU running, had been sceptical even before arriving in Brussels that a deal might be reached at the summit and played down the importance of failure.

She said Friday she was “satisfied” at the progress made and confident a deal would eventually be achieved.