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Grenfell tower effigy: Judges ordered fresh trial over ‘offensive’ bonfire video

·5-min read
Paul Bussetti (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Archive)
Paul Bussetti (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Archive)

A south London man accused of sparking public outrage with a video of a Grenfell Tower effigy being burned on a bonfire must face a fresh trial, a High Court judge has ruled.

Paul Bussetti, 49, was accused of sharing a “grossly offensive” video of a cardboard model of the doomed tower block going up in flames at a private party.

A video of the incident, at a November 2018 party, went viral when it was posted to YouTube, leading to Bussetti’s arrest and prosecution.

He was found not guilty after a trial in August 2019, when a judge decided she could not be sure that the video, which went viral online, was the same clip that Bussetti shared to two WhatsApp groups.

However the Court of Appeal have now quashed that acquittal, ordering that Bussetti should stand trial again.

The video, which was seen by the High Court judges, showed figures being burned in a model of the west-London tower (PA Media)
The video, which was seen by the High Court judges, showed figures being burned in a model of the west-London tower (PA Media)

Prosecutors argued the video was grossly offensive and fuelled by racist humour, insisting black and Muslim occupants of the tower were depicted in figures on the side of the model.

However, Bussetti told Westminster magistrates court the incident and video was intended as a “joke” and had been misunderstood by members of the public, as the figures on the side were actually mocking versions of his group of friends.

The maker of the effigy, Steve Bull, and another man present at the November 2018 bonfire party, Peter Hancock, told police the figures on the model were intended to depict their group of friends, rather than actual victims of the Grenfell tragedy.

Near the end of the trial, Bussetti’s lawyers said that a second video of the bonfire existed which they were not previously aware of, meaning there was no way to know which footage had been uploaded to YouTube and gone viral.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) appealed to the High Court against Bussetti’s acquittal, and Lord Justice Bean said trial judge, then-Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot, should have found that the two videos of the bonfire were similar.

“It may be that the sound quality of Mr Bussetti’s video was not as good as that of the video which we have seen, if it was indeed not the same one, or the camera angle slightly different, but that is of minimal significance”, he said in his ruling.

“Since it was clear…that Mr Bussetti’s video was substantially similar, though maybe not identical, to the one uploaded to YouTube and played in court, the Chief Magistrate was required to consider whether its content was grossly offensive and whether (Bussetti) intended it to be so or was aware that it was likely to be so.”

Paul Bussetti was found not guilty after a two-day trial at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in August 2019 (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)
Paul Bussetti was found not guilty after a two-day trial at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in August 2019 (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)

Lord Justice Bean, sitting with Mr Justice Dove, also rejected Bussetti’s lawyers’ argument that the prosecution’s case was only about racism. “The question was whether Mr Bussetti had sent via WhatsApp a message which he intended to be, or which he was aware might be, grossly offensive to members of the public, in particular members of the Grenfell community, who saw it.

“Not all the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster were from ethnic minorities, though many were.” The judge later said that he did not accept Bussetti’s argument – that the figures in the bonfire were his friends – as a defence.

“Even if the trial court accepts that the cut-out figures may have been intended to represent the defendant and his friends, that would not in my view provide a defence to the charge.

“A member of the Grenfell community or other reasonable member of the public, seeing a video of the effigy, would not know that the figures were intended to be anyone other than the residents of Grenfell Tower.

“There are no names attached to the cut-out figures; only the name ‘Grenfell’ at the top of the effigy, which clearly depicts a tall building with people at the windows.”

When she acquitted Bussetti, the judge said she was “appalled” by the state of the disclosure in the case, after it came to light that evidence had not been passed on to the defence team.

But she also strongly criticised Mr Bussetti and his friends for the bonfire, which she said was in “colossal bad taste”.

Mr Bussetti, a father-of-two who owns a lucrative property portfolio, sent the video to two WhatsApp groups containing a total of 20 people.

He insisted the figures on the model were of his friends, and he sent the video to people who “understood the joke”.

“The majority of the people in that (WhatsApp) group were at the party, they all found it funny, we all found it funny”, he said. “It was pictures of us on the box.”

He said it was “certainly not” genuine Grenfell victims on the effigy, and argued public outrage at the video was based on a misunderstanding of the “joke”.

Bussetti said one figure with red hair was a friend whose nickname is “Ginge”, another figure with thick eyebrows was his friend whose nickname is “eyebrows”, and a third was the host of the party, Clifford Smith, who is known as “The Ghost”.

“He tries his hardest to get a sun tan and he just comes back white”, said Bussetti, denying the claim that the figure is a baby.

Prosecutors claimed one of the figures was a Muslim woman in a niqab, and one attendee of the party in November last year is heard on the video saying: “Look, little ninjas getting it at the moment”.

But Bussetti today insisted the figure was actually Mr Smith’s son: “When he was younger he used to do martial arts and called himself ‘ninja’, and we called him a ninja.”

During the trial, a string of racist messages Bussetti had received and shared on WhatsApp were shown, including offensive jokes about Muslims, black people, and involving the KKK.

Asked directly if he is a racist, Mr Bussetti twice replied: “No”.

Bussetti, from South Norwood, Bussetti will now face a retrial at Westminster magistrates court in front of a different judge. He will also have to pay the CPS costs of £6,095.

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