Winston Peters has built a minor political career on cheap, reckless and cruel character assassinations from the protection of parliamentary privilege. Nobody is surprised any more when the member for Tauranga maligns individuals in extravagant terms that other public watchdogs, including newspapers, are obliged to investigate. When his claims wilt under closer inquiry, Mr Peters moves the goal posts. He is doing so again on the Airways Corporation.

A few months ago Mr Peters accused people on the corporation of corruption over a bid to buy into the British air traffic control system soon to be partly privatised. His charge rested on the contention that individuals stood to gain personally if the bid was successful. And further, that they had bought the silence of the corporation's former house solicitor who was concerned about the conflict of interest of those leading the bid.

When the Auditor-General was asked to investigate, Mr Peters claimed the inquiry was not wide enough. Predictably, he has dismissed as worthless the Auditor-General's report released by the Government this week. It is not worthless. It is a reassuring insight to the way the corporation dealt with an inevitable conflict of interest. It is also an exciting testament to the possibilities for New Zealanders in global air traffic management.

The British Government is not alone. Logic and trends in the industry point to privatisation of national air traffic systems and worldwide rationalisation. New Zealand's air control, well established now as a state-owned enterprise, is further along the path than most. If its bid is successful it will run the British system.

It is bidding in partnership with Lockheed Martin, whose technology the corporation uses, and a British financier, Apax Partners Ltd, which provides venture capital. It was Apax, the inquiry confirms, which proposed incentives for those who would manage the British operation if the bid is successful. Like many a capital provider, Apax regarded incentive payments as important to the security of its investments.

Three executives of the Airways Corporation have been in London working full-time on the bid for months. They stand to be appointed to senior posts in the British operation if the bid succeeds. They might be tempted to proceed with the bid even if there is no net benefit to the corporation. That was one conflict of interest.

A second arose with Apax's suggestion to the corporation chairman John Maasland, also chairman of Wilson and Horton, that it offer management incentives. The inquiry finds he rejected the idea. Its criticism, with hindsight it admits, of his failure to mention the proposal at two board meetings, is a procedural quibble.

The Auditor-General was asked to check that the board's procedures were adequate to protect the company's interest. He found that the full board dealt with major issues concerning the British bid, a special subcommittee of the board was set up to monitor the project closely, the board resolved to take independent advice and to exclude the three executives from its deliberations on the subject.

The Auditor-General finds those precautions "appropriate and robust" although he believes they ought to have been adopted earlier than they were. He finds no evidence that anybody was paid "hush money."

Mr Peters has put reputations at risk needlessly, again. He owes those people an apology.