Published: 26/09/2002, Volume II2, No. 5824 Page 18 19

By definition, news is an event that has either just happened or is about to happen.

So why did the media work itself into such a lather this week about managers at nine NHS trusts who massaged figures to meet government targets on waiting lists?

After all the 'story', which related to events that took place between 1996 and 2001, was first highlighted by the National Audit Office in July last year and followed up by a subsequent report in December.Although obviously an issue of public interest, the reports received little attention at the time.

The 'hook' for the stories this time round centres on the report from the Commons'prestigious public accounts committee report. It condemns the deliberate manipulation of lists and distortion of clinical priorities that may have put patients' lives at risk and has further undermined public confidence in the NHS.

Some papers - the Financial Times , The Guardian and the Evening Standard - picked up on the MPs'warning that health secretary Alan Milburn's efforts to cut waiting times by imposing stringent targets will further increase pressure on managers, implying that the public may not yet have seen the last of target-manipulation scandals.

The Daily Telegraph boasted that it had reported evidence of fiddled waiting lists last year which, it claimed, the July NAO report subsequently confirmed.

The Times focused on inadequate action taken against those who played a part in the fixing, while the Daily Mail told of lower-priority patients receiving care before those in more urgent need in order to bring numbers down.

The Independent chose to consider the implications if patients sued the NHS after claiming that they had suffered as a result of 'the systematic distortion'of waiting lists.

Most of these points were at least implicit in the NAO's reports.

Perhaps, as health issues are always high up the public agenda and spark excitable and emotional debate, the very cynical among us may suspect a link between the timing of this story, its newsworthiness and the party conference season getting off to a start with the Liberal Democrats in Brighton this week.

Let's hope that produces some new news.