'Vile' Grenfell Tower effigy set on fire ‘an artistic effort’ under freedom of expression law, court hears

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Paul Davies

A Grenfell Tower model set alight on a bonfire was a “mocking joke”, "satirical" and an “artistic effort”, a court has been told.

Paul Bussetti, 46, has gone on trial accused of sending a “grossly offensive” video on WhatsApp and causing footage of a “menacing character” to be uploaded on YouTube.

Footage of the effigy being set alight at a party last year sparked outrage when it was shared online, and featured on the news.

In the video, laughter could be heard as the model was placed on the bonfire and set alight in front of a group of around 30 people at the gathering on November 3.

The model being set on fire. Credit: PA
Paul Bussetti arrives at Westminster Magistrates’ Court Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA

The prosecution has argued the footage, which shows black and brown cardboard figures inside the building and some hanging off as if falling from it, is also racist in its content.

A comment can be heard on the video, which was played to the court, referring to a “ninja”, which prosecutor Philip Stott said is believed to have been made about a figure on the tower which was all in black and wearing a niqab.

The court heard that Bussetti had frequently used racist terms including “Paki” and the N-word in other WhatsApp chats.

Among details given to the court were a message from Bussetti stating “N* priest as well” in a conversation about the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex last year at which US preacher Bishop Michael Curry gave a sermon.

Laughter could be heard as the model was placed on the bonfire and set alight. Credit: Paul Bussetti

Bussetti's lawyer Mark Summers QC argued that while the incident was undoubtedly "hurtful", it is protected by the right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mr Summers told Westminster Magistrates Court: “That joke was hurtful, distasteful, mocking, disgusting but the authorities are, we say, abundantly clear. A public expression of hurtful humour such as that is protected by Article 10.”

The prosecution said the model was also racist. Credit: PA

Mr Summers also said that content in the effigy footage was “nowhere near racist hate speech such as to take it outside Article 10”, citing comments made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson before his tenure as Prime Minister.

Mr Johnson's in the Congo being “tribal warriors” with “watermelon smiles”, and a 2018 Daily Telegraph column in which the Tory MP described veiled Muslim women as “looking like letter boxes” were referenced in court.

Mr Summers told the court: “We say that none of these things cross the high threshold of hate speech but all of them have emanated from the mouth of the man who is now our prime minister. And he has not been prosecuted for any of them.”

The defence justified Mr Bussetti's comments by citing Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Credit: PA

Of the effigy, Mr Summers went on: “This was, whatever one thinks of it, an artistic effort. It was a model. It was satirical.”

Mr Summers also argued that an encrypted private WhatsApp chat cannot be considered a public communications network under the Communications Act 2003 that Bussetti is charged under.

But Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot said, following an application to dismiss the case, that she was satisfied there is a case to answer on both counts.

The burning of Grenfell Tower was a tragedy still affecting survivors and victims' families. Credit: PA

The footage was branded “vile” by the aunt of 12-year-old Jessica Urbano Ramirez, who died in the blaze which claimed the lives of a total of 72 people in west London on June 14 2017.

In a statement read to the court, Sandra Ruiz said: “The video made a mockery of her death. To see people making a mockery of that is vile.”

The defendant voluntarily attended Croydon police station two days after the bonfire, by which time footage of the incident had been widely shared on the internet and featured on the news.

However, he has claimed he did not contribute to the construction of the effigy.

Sandra Ruiz (right) after handing in a petition to Downing Street asking for an overhaul of the Grenfell public inquiry. (2017) Credit: PA

The court heard that Bussetti told police he had “no idea” why he had filmed the incident and sent it to two WhatsApp groups, which had a total of around 20 members.

In interview comments to officers which were read to the court, he added: “One of those stupid moments.”

He said: “It was just sick. There was no purpose. It was just a horrible video.”

Bussetti said he had not intended the video to go viral and that it did not support any agenda.

The trial was adjourned until August 22.

The defendant, from South Norwood, south-east London, was released on unconditional bail.