A video of a cardboard model of Grenfell Tower being burned on a bonfire was a “distasteful joke”, the High Court has heard, in an appeal against the acquittal of the father who filmed the clip.
Paul Bussetti was accused of sending a “grossly offensive” video on WhatsApp after footage filmed in a friend’s garden in November 2018 was shared widely online and prompted outrage.
Mr Bussetti, then 47, was found not guilty after a two-day trial at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in August 2019.
The prosecution had argued that the footage, in which cardboard figures burned as the model went up in flames, was racist in showing black and brown characters representing victims of the Grenfell Tower blaze, which killed 72 people.
But Mr Bussetti said the characters were images of his associates, including a black-clad figure meant to represent a friend who did martial arts and had been referred to as “little ninja”.
Mr Bussetti’s lawyers said that a second video of the bonfire existed which they were not aware of until the end of the trial, meaning there was no way to know which footage had been uploaded to YouTube and gone viral.
Mrs Justice Arbuthnot, the former Chief Magistrate who held the original trial, said she could not be sure Mr Bussetti had filmed the video that was widely seen – including by some directly affected by the tragedy.
At the High Court on Tuesday, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) brought an appeal against Mr Bussetti’s acquittal.
John McGuinness QC, for the CPS, said both videos of the incident would be “materially similar” as the bonfire lasted only a few minutes and was in a confined space.
Mr McGuinness said: “It is somewhat unlikely in the extreme that the video the respondent did take did not contain that which could be seen in the video that was exhibited in evidence before the judge below.”
The barrister later said that while Mr Bussetti defended himself by saying the bonfire was a joke aimed at himself and his friends, he had no known link to the tragedy.
“It was never suggested that the respondent or his friends have any connection at all with Grenfell, the tower or the fire, but the ‘joke’ was put in that context,” he said.
The High Court heard that comments from those at the bonfire about Grenfell can be heard in the clip, including “don’t worry stay in your flats” and “that’s what happens when they don’t pay their rent”.
Mr McGuinness said in written submissions: “It is the combination of the audible remarks and the accompanying visual images which provide the distinctive feature of the video – that those present as a group found the burning of an effigy of Grenfell Tower, depicting residents at their windows, a matter of humorous entertainment.”
Mark Summers QC, for Mr Bussetti, said the trial prosecution had focused its case on the clip being grossly offensive because it was racist.
He said: “This case was, with respect, only about racism. What you are being asked to do is to find a case proved based on a theory that was not being advanced below.
“This was not a racist video,” he added.
The barrister said that the clip was also not a “gratuitous attempt to insult the victims of Grenfell” as the cardboard figures in the windows represented Mr Bussetti’s friends.
“It may be distasteful, but it was a joke aimed not at the victims of Grenfell Tower, but at himself and his friends,” Mr Summers continued.
Mr Bussetti, previously of South Norwood, south-east London, said he shared the footage of the effigy with two WhatsApp groups totalling about 20 people.
Mr Summers argued his client did not expect the clip to be shared widely or seen by those affected by the tragedy.
He continued: “The context here is a private, ill-judged, distasteful joke shared among, and only among, those who would understand it to be a joke.”
However, the barrister later said Mr Bussetti was “not somebody who deserves sympathy”.
At his trial, Mrs Justice Arbuthnot said Mr Bussetti had sent “truly offensive” messages, including using terms such as the N-word and “Paki” in WhatsApp chats.
Lord Justice Bean and Mr Justice Dove reserved their judgment, to be given at a later date.