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The Anti-Social Network (BBC3)

Rachel Cooke is unsettled by a documentary on internet abuse.

The Anti-Social Network

Why was Richard Bacon's documentary, The Anti-Social Network (19 March, 9pm), hidden away on BBC3? People who see the point of BBC3 will, of course, insist that it wasn't hidden away at all: the station's schedule is full of marvellous zeitgeisty stuff like this and I should tune in more often. But the rest of us, a touch baffled by BBC3's continued existence, will feel that it would have been equally at home on BBC2. Certainly, more people would have seen it there, which would have been a good thing. I can't remember the last time a film about something so relatively quotidian - internet trolls - made me feel so queasy, discomfited and, in the end, despairing.

What is to be done about trolls? God knows. As journalists, we're urged to "engage" with those who post aggressive comments beneath our names. If we do, they'll shut up. But I'm not so sure. A certain kind of hater wants a reaction, and their enjoyment of this when it comes - the buzz it gives them - only encourages them to have another go. The spite ratchets up, at which point it morphs into something toxic. Bacon, a clever, talented and mostly likeable broadcaster, has had a troll for the past two years. Quite a nasty troll. He wants Bacon to die and fantasises about seeing his mangled body among the wreckage of a car crash. In the film, Bacon began by wanting to meet him. By the time the titles were about to roll, however, he felt differently. The experts chorused that he should contact the police.

I use the word "brave" only rarely. But Bacon's willingness to talk about his troll, to repeat the comments he posts on Twitter (255 abusive tweets in the weeks it took him to make the documentary alone), seemed to me to be both brave and rather becoming, most famous people being reluctant to admit to anything other than universal adoration. Then again, his experiences did somewhat pale beside those of his interviewees. I knew that RIP pages - Facebook pages established after a person has died - were troubled by trolls, but I'd no idea at all how heinous they can be. Dear God. Who are these people who Photoshop pictures of boys who have killed themselves so that their eyes are bleeding and a noose is tight about their neck? When Horatio Chapple was killed by a polar bear during a school expedition last year, the trolls posted pictures of dismembered body parts on a site in his memory. "ETON MESS," said one caption (Chapple was a pupil at Eton.) "ON NOM NOM."

Who are these people? Well, here's the thing. As regular listeners to Radio 5 Live will know, Bacon is nothing if not dogged (and so long as he keeps to the right side of David Brent, something he doesn't always achieve, this is great; he's on our side). It wasn't long before he had spoken, face to face, with not one, but two self-confessed trolls. The first, Colm Coss, is one of only two people to be convicted of posting abusive comments under the Communications Act 2003. He got 18 weeks, an experience that seems to have chastened him not at all. (According to police interviews, he is "provoked" by the kind remarks posted on Facebook by people who do not even know the person the page in question memorialises.)

The second was Damon Evans, who likes to make anal sex jokes about recently deceased children. Naturally, neither was the repulsive, bedroom-dwelling, ball-scratching, Y-front-wearing, sock-masturbating Marillion fan of one's imagination - though this being TV, I do not know if they had BO and fetid jeans (Bacon, pro that he is, did not so much as flinch).

Coss politely refused to submit to questioning and bicycled shamelessly off. Evans, who turned up for a meeting with Bacon knowing a camera would be there, lied about his trolling, only to email later and admit to the greater part of it. Why so bare-faced? My own theory - as a Twitter addict, Bacon fought shy of blaming the internet itself - is that those who live the greater part of their lives online become fatally detached from the rest of us. For them, we cease to exist - and if a person doesn't exist, how can he or she have any feelings?

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide