The man who filmed a model of Grenfell Tower being set on fire has been acquitted after claiming the stunt was “funny” and not racist.
Paul Bussetti, a property millionaire, told Westminster Magistrates’ Court the effigy was set alight at a bonfire party as a “joke”.
He said figures of people stuck in the windows of the burning model, which was labelled as Grenfell Tower, did not represent the 72 victims of the 2017 disaster.
Mr Bussetti was cleared of Communications Act offences on Thursday, after new evidence emerged that made it impossible to prove who had taken the video seen by the court.
In the last stages of the trial, the defence said it was made aware that a second video of the burning had been taken and two other men had given accounts to police that supported Mr Bussetti’s claims.
Giving evidence at his trial, Mr Bussetti said the characters depicted his associates and made reference to their nicknames.
His defence lawyer, Mark Summers QC, asked him: “Who were the subjects of the tower joke?”
Mr Bussetti answered: “The majority of people that were at the party.”
Asked what the joke was about, the married father-of-two replied: “About us.”
The defendant told the court that he had featured in the model himself, sporting big ears, which had earned him the nickname “Pluggy”, but it was not visible in the video as he had filmed the other side of the model.
The 47-year-old said a figure, which the prosecution suggested represented a Muslim woman in a niqab, was meant to be a friend’s son who did martial arts and had been referred to during his childhood as “ninja”.
Mr Bussetti denied that another figure represented a baby and said it was a “ghost”, in reference to a pale friend.
Rejecting any suggestion that those in the model were meant to be the people killed in the Grenfell Tower fire, he said: “That’s the media and the TV putting their stuff to it that was totally wrong.”
Mr Bussetti said he shared the footage with two WhatsApp groups totalling about 20 people because one featured many of those at the party and the other had people who knew his friends.
Insisting he had intended the footage to go no further than the groups, he told the court: “It was funny. Everyone knew it was funny.”
Prosecutor Philip Stott put it to Mr Bussetti that he had sent the footage on WhatsApp because it was in keeping with the sort of “highly racist” content shared within the groups.
Mr Bussetti rejected the assertion and said: “I found it funny because the people in the cardboard box were us. That’s just banter that’s going on.”
He said he receives “thousands” of images a week on WhatsApp and forwards some of them to other people and groups without looking at them.
Asked by Mr Stott if he was racist, the defendant replied: “No.”
Footage of the effigy being set alight in a garden prompted outrage when it was shared widely online, and has been branded “vile” by a relative of one of the victims of the disaster.
Laughter can be heard on the video, which has been played to the court, as the model burns in front of a group of about 30 people at the 3 November gathering.
Onlookers make several references to the circumstances of the disaster, calling out “stay in your flat, we are coming to get you” and “jump out the window”.
As the flames reach the figure wearing black, an unseen figure remarks: “The little ninja is getting it.”
Mr Stott told the trial that comment was believed to have been about a figure in the tower wearing what looked like a niqab.
The prosecution said the footage, showing black and brown cardboard figures inside the building and some hanging off as if falling from it, was racist in its content.
Mr Bussetti said he had “panicked” when he saw the footage go viral, and had deleted the video from one of the chat groups while deleting the other chat group entirely.
He said he had not mentioned to police during two interviews that the people in the tower were him and his friends because he was “scared” and “nervous”.
When he voluntarily attended a station two days after the bonfire he told officers the video was “sick” and “horrible” and had no purpose.
Mr Bussetti, from South Norwood in London, said the effigy had been made by his friend Steve Bull.
He denied two counts of sending grossly offensive material, saying he shared the footage in private WhatsApp groups and did not intend it to go viral.
Mr Summers later told the court that another video of the model being burnt was taken by someone else and posted to a separate WhatsApp group.
He said the person who filmed that footage, and the man who made the effigy, both said the figures on the model depicted the defendant and his friends.
Mr Summers said the defence team was only made aware on Thursday afternoon and argued that the revelations made it unclear whether the footage shared online was the clip taken by Mr Bussetti.
He said: “We have very, very serious doubts about the integrity of this prosecution.”
Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot said she could not be sure the figures on the tower were not the defendant and his friends burning on the bonfire.
She told the court the video was “in colossal bad taste” and added: “I cannot be sure the video relied on by the Crown is the one taken by the defendant ... I am just appalled at the disclosure in this case.”
Additional reporting by PA