Renowned sports journalist Rebecca Wilson dies from breast cancer at 54

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The sports journalist Rebecca Wilson has died after a “secret” battle with breast cancer, her family has revealed. News that the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph columnist and broadcaster had died at 54 came as a shock to the media and sports communities on Friday morning because her illness was “a closely guarded secret”.

The forthright sports commentator who worked at every network in her high-profile career was married to the former News Corp Australia chief executive John Hartigan and had two sons, Tom and Will, from a previous marriage to the television producer Howard Sacre.

“She passed away peacefully in the family home in Sydney while surrounded by her loved ones,” Hartigan, Tom and Will said in a statement.

“Courage has always been a significant part of her DNA, no less in her desperate battle against her insidious disease.

“Rebecca kept knowledge of her illness a closely guarded secret. The majority of her friends, colleagues and indeed members of her family were unaware of the extent of her illness. She did so to limit their suffering.

“We are so proud that she was so fearless in her chosen role as a sports journalist. She brushed aside evil trolls, bullies and organised crime figures to prosecute her craft.

“She proved that women had an equally important role in sports journalism as her male counterparts. We dearly love and miss our Bec.” Wilson, a much-loved member of the News Corp family, continued to work right up until last month when she called for the league player Andrew Fifita to be sacked for visiting a killer in jail and said rugby league had more disgraced players than AFL or rugby union.

“So that’s when the league steps in,” she said. “Dare I say it but incidents like this do not happen in rugby union or AFL.

“While there are bad eggs in both, nothing in either comes close to the atrocities that are almost routinely committed in league.”

Wilson made a name for herself as a forthright television commentator on the ABC’s The Fat with Tony Squires in the early 2000s. She was a reporter or commentator on both the Olympic and Commonwealth games and early in her career was a sports reporter at Channel Ten in Brisbane.

While her mainstay was journalism, she did leave News to work in various corporate and media roles for the Sydney Olympics, the Rugby World Cup and Super League.

She always championed the role of women in sport and last year she was proud to appear on an all-female sport panel ’ Sports Night alongside athletes turned commentators Melinda Gainsford-Taylor and Liz Ellis.

“We have really broken through here,” she said.

News Corp Australia’s executive chairman, Michael Miller, said Wilson was one of Australia’s most respected sports journalists – “expert, passionate and utterly fearless”.

“She was courageous, she was bold, she was determined and she never gave up,” he said. “Her private fight against the cancer that took her life is testament to that spirit.”

The NRL chief executive, Todd Greenberg, said she was a fearless journalist. “She was a pioneer in many respects for women in the game, women in sports and women in sports journalism,” he said.

Tributes flowed on social media. The Fairfax journalist Kate McClymont said Wilson was “a passionate and gutsy reporter who loved sport” and fellow sports writer Peter FitzSimons said he was shocked to hear of her passing. “Great sports columnist, devoted mother, wife and friend,” the former Wallaby said.

The sports broadcaster Francis Leach also paid tribute. “For a couple of months it’s been very bad with the breast cancer, it came and it came really hard,” he said on SEN Breakfast.

“I spoke with Rebecca about two weeks ago and she said she thought she was getting better, it was a slog. I’ve been in regular contact with her up until before grand final week so this has come as a shock to me.

“I know she was fighting it pretty tough but it’s obviously an enormous shock.

“I used to fight with Rebecca all the time. A lot of my friends in the football and soccer community go, ‘How can you be friends with her?’

“You don’t have to agree with everybody all the time. We’d go out for a drink together and have a standup, hour-long argument after a whole bunch of things but then fall off the chair laughing at one another. We just got along very well, we were just good friends.”

Wilson’s trailblazing role in sports reporting was hailed by a Women in Media New South Wales committee member, LJ Loch.

“Rebecca was Amazonian in presence – smart, confident, assertive and a true trailblazer for women in sport even now when just 25% of journalists reporting on male sport and 20% of journalists reporting on female sport are female,” she said.

“She inspired many women including myself to brave the world of sports and the wider world of journalism. We owe her a lot.”

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